Proposing Public Prayer in Albany January 28, 2010

Proposing Public Prayer in Albany

It’s bad enough that some school and governments have moments of silence parading as prayer.

It’s even worse when someone takes a moment of silence and tries to officially make it a time for prayer.

That’s what Councilman Anton Konev is trying to do in Albany, New York:

Newly elected Councilman Anton Konev, sworn in four weeks ago, wants to amend the council’s rules to include an opening prayer at its biweekly meetings, right between the Pledge of Allegiance and the public comment period — a slot currently occupied by a moment of silence.

His resolution would call for council members to rotate leading the prayer themselves, as they do with the Pledge, or “invite a religious leader to lead the prayer on their behalf.”

While we’re at it, let’s have readings from the Bible, Koran, and Vedas after the prayers.

Forget legislating. That was always a waste of time, anyway…

At least there’s some resistance to this pointless idea:

“I think what I would tell them is, under the case law from the Supreme Court, you have the ability to open a legislative session with a prayer, however, you’re probably going to get sued,” [lawyer Thomas] Marcelle replied when asked what advice he would give county lawmakers.

Councilman John Rosenzweig called the measure inappropriate, adding, “It’s not a house of prayer, it’s a house of government.”

And one politician spoke on behalf of us:

Councilman Dominick Calsolaro, like others, questioned how the council would distinguish between what would be considered an acceptable prayer or an acceptable “religious leader” and wondered what choice the prayer would leave nonbelievers.

“By making this part of the agenda, that’s requiring me, who doesn’t believe in this, to be there during the prayer,” said Calsolaro, adding that his only alternatives would be to leave the chamber, which would be disrespectful to the person leading the prayer, or show up late.

Formal prayers in politics do nothing but pander to the religious base and waste time. They divide the legislators and accomplish nothing.

You want to pray? Do it at home. Do it in your office before coming to the meeting. Do it in your head during the moment of silence.

Don’t waste the time of the committee and the taxpayers.

(Thanks to muggle for the link)

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  • Claudia

    “By making this part of the agenda, that’s requiring me, who doesn’t believe in this, to be there during the prayer,” said Calsolaro, adding that his only alternatives would be to leave the chamber, which would be disrespectful to the person leading the prayer, or show up late.

    I know it’s a bit pathetic to be impressed by such a mild statement, but I think thanks are in order for Councilman Calsolaro for making it patent that its not just a matter of conceding to the law but that he personally doesn’t believe in this nonsense. Mild as it is, admitting any hint of nonbelief is politically very risky and therefore praiseworthy.

  • Don’t most of these people show up late anyway?

    Silly. I’m surprised it’s Albany, though – I never would have pegged Albany, being so close to that pit of sin and heathenry Canukland, as being very religious.

  • Yaeger

    Upstate NY is where they all hide in the state.

  • I can only hope that if this were to pass that someone would call in the Pastafarians to do a pre-meeting prayer.

  • I’ve always wondered why the Christians can’t get together before the meetings and have a pray meeting. I know Christian atheletes that do that, so why not city government?

  • Because, Robert, that would make SENSE!

  • It’s a shame that it didn’t pass, too, because our local atheist/agnostic meetup group was planning on seeing if we could get some Wiccans, Buddhists, Satanists, Muslims, atheists, and other various folks to come in and chant, sing, pray, recite poetry, etc. for the nice councilpeople. Y’know, to give Mr. Konev a chance to show just how much he embraces diversity.

    This guy is a real piece of work, let me tell you. When we e-mailed him asking him to reconsider, he responded with the legalese version of the Gish Gallop:

    Re: Prayer at Common Coucil Meetings

    I will use what US Justices had to say on this topic to respond to you (as well as other research).

    Recognition of the validity of legislative prayer was reaffirmed recently by the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Simpson. The court there wrote that legislative invocational prayer has become part of the “fabric of society” and is “‘among those government acknowledgments of religion [that] serve, . . ., the legitimate secular purposes of solemnizing public occasions, expressing confidence in the future, and encouraging the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society.’” Simpson, 404 F.3d at 282-83 (quoting Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 693 (1984) (O’Connor, J., concurring)). The Simpson decision upheld a county board’s practice of allowing religious leaders of various faiths to offer a prayer at the beginning of board public meetings, distinguishing Wynne on the basis that the town council in that case insisted that the prayer invoke a particular religion. Simpson, 404 F.3d 283-84.

    Thus, consistent with the Fourth Circuit Court’s decision in Simpson and Wynne, Council members or invited clergy may continue to offer prayers before Council sessions. The Supreme Court’s decision in Marsh stands for the proposition that officially sanctioned prayers before legislative sessions are constitutionally valid and do not offend the Establishment Clause.

    Permitting or offering prayers specific to a variety of religious faiths would not “proselytize or advance any one, or …disparage any other, faith or belief.” Marsh, 463 U.S. at 794-95. Indeed, a rotating system of this kind was approved in Simpson, 404 F.3d 284, which lauded the board’s effort to invite and include clergy from many faiths and held that this exceeded the requirements of Marsh and lent a richness to the board’s practice. Per the Supreme Court’s decision in Marsh and the Fourth Circuit’s decision in Simpson, should Council members wish to offer “sectarian” prayers specific to a variety of faiths – or invite clergy from a variety of faiths to offer such prayers – such a practice would be consistent with the Establishment Clause. Id. See also, Snyder v. Murray City Corp., 159 F.3d 1227 (10th Cir. 1998) (upholding as constitutional the City Council’s practice of inviting members of the clergy to offer invocations before meetings and its exclusion of one individual who wished to offer a sacrilegious prayer). Indeed, such a practice would celebrate the diversity of religious beliefs and faiths of the nation and community

    It must be pointed out that prayers delivered by City Council members (i.e., government officials) and those delivered by private speakers, other than government officials, are governed by different constitutional analyses. In fact, because prayers delivered by clergy or other private citizens constitute private speech, rather than government speech, there is no reason to restrict the content of such prayers. And, in our opinion, the First Amendment Establishment Clause to the United States Constitution forbids such restriction. As with all Establishment Clause questions, the critical inquiry with respect to prayers delivered at Council meetings is whether the religious speech is private speech or government speech. “[T]here is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clause protect.”

    Board of Educ. v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 250 (1990) (plurality opinion); accord Rosenberger v.

    Rector of Univ. of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 841 (1995).

    It is the identity of the speakers as private individuals, rather than government representatives, that distinguishes the invocations from those considered in both Wynne and Marsh. Invocations delivered voluntarily by private individuals at Council meetings do not constitute “government speech” merely by virtue of the fact that they are allowed by the Council members and occur on government property. Because they do not constitute government speech, prayers delivered by private citizens necessarily fall into the category of private speech and, thus, are not within the ambit of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Rather, they are protected by the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses.

    In both Marsh and Wynne, the primary concern was about government favoritism toward a particular religious sect. In Wynne, this concern was implicated because the exclusively Christian invocations were offered by representatives of the Town; they thus had the effect of affiliating the Town with Christianity. On the other hand, where Town officials simply allow private individuals to deliver invocations without restricting their content, there is no official affiliation of the Town with whatever invocation happens to be delivered. These invocations constitute private speech that is protected by the very core of the First Amendment. Moreover, a Council’s policy of allowing different individuals to pray on a rotating basis is even less likely to result in proselytization of any one particular faith, or disparagement of any other, than the policy upheld in Marsh because any given belief system may be represented by the different individuals who are given the opportunity to pray at various times.

    Hoo boy.

  • I don’t know. I think sending up a burnt offering to the Flying Spaghetti Monster would be a great way to open a government meeting.

  • muggle

    Mike, we have a local group! Why didn’t you tell me this before?

    Damned, dude. Thanks for the link.

    Lagunatic, my Canadian grandmother was very religious. She and my mother were at war for the 20 years my parents were married. Probably because she lead Dad away from Catholicism.

    Of course, she was French-Canadian. Does that count?

    Sadly, the religiousity factor has greatly grown in Albany. The Catholic church here always did have too damned much influence but people used to not give a damn if you believed. Shrugged and said you think what you think and I’ll think what I think.

    Upon my return from a decade exiled in Denver for marrying badly, I encountered some very serious hositility to my nonbelief that I never expected.

  • Muggle – sorry! Somehow I thought I’d mentioned it before.

    As for good ol’ Anton, I suppose I spoke too soon. The article I read that tallied up the votes was just a pre-vote ‘feeling it out’ sort of thing; the actual vote is next Monday, I believe.

  • muggle

    mike, this guy gets better and better. Did you see this?

    The blog comments over bringing prayer are running to the negative too. And he just doesn’t give a damn that no one wants this. He does. End of argument. Can we say theocrat?

    I don’t have standing since I’m in Guilderland but I think I’m gonna drop FFRF and AU a line anyway.

  • muggle

    Done. Let you know what responses I get from either.

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