By Hannah Wiest
The Sheridan Press
SHERIDAN — A recent discussion held Nov. 6 in the U.S. Supreme Court centered on whether or not public prayers should be allowed before town board meetings and could impact local meetings depending on how the case is decided in early summer 2014.
The case involves two women — Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway — who sued officials of the town of Greece, N.Y., for allowing prayers to be offered before town meetings.
The women, who are atheist and Jewish, respectively, claim the prayers are predominantly Christian in nature and are a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prevents governmental establishment of religion.
Stephens and Galloway also said the ministers who give the invocations often request that people stand and bow their heads, which makes the women worry they will somehow face retribution from the town council on the matter they have come to discuss when they refuse to stand.
After hearing concerns from the women and others, government officials sought more diverse ministers — including a Wiccan priestess — but a federal appeals court in New York ruled the town’s prayer policy to be unconstitutional and the case escalated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Discussions by Supreme Court justices were divided. Some said the prayer policy should direct ministers to avoid controversial points, including using the name of Jesus, and that they should not ask meeting attendants to physically participate. Others said they were reluctant to broadly rule against something that has been part of government meetings since the nation’s foundation, noting that prayers are offered before U.S. and state legislature meetings, as well as the Supreme Court.
In Sheridan County, the Sheridan City Council is the only governmental body that includes an invocation before its meetings. Prayers are not offered before County Commission, Dayton or Ranchester Town Council, or any of the three school district meetings.
County Commissioner Steve Maier said there is no specific reason the commissioners don’t have an invocation. It’s just never been done.
“I have read minutes of meetings over the years, and I never saw that mentioned,” Maier said. “It certainly has never come up or been considered in the time I’ve been here. Since I’ve been on the board, no one has suggested it, so we’ve never considered it.”
Mayor Dave Kinskey said that when he was first elected mayor in 2004, City Council opened with the Pledge of Allegiance but not a prayer.
“I felt that it was appropriate to offer to begin the meeting with a prayer for two reasons. One, I think that any human endeavor goes better if you begin with a prayer. And City Council, sometimes the meetings are easy and sometimes they can be fraught with tension, and I think invoking God’s name and starting with everybody reflecting on that helps the meetings go better,” Kinskey said.
Kinskey said the second reason was he felt allowing a prayer would pass constitutional policy because Congress and the Wyoming Legislature open with prayer. He also noted that America’s money and the Pledge of Allegiance invoke God’s name.
The mayor and City Councilman John Heath said they have never received any complaints about the prayers in the nearly 10 years they’ve been offered.
“I’ve not received any calls at all, either way,” Heath said. “I think it’s well received. I would like to add that it throws a positive note to our meeting, invocation does. We all struggle every day to make ends meet and do our job well, and when you have a good, positive message before a meeting, it is my opinion that it does go better.”
Kinskey and Heath both said the opportunity to pray before a city council meeting is open to ministers of all faiths, and even people not associated with a particular church. Kinskey has invited pastors from both ministerial associations in town — Pastors United in Christ and the Sheridan Ministerial Association — to pray and said he wishes more would take advantage of the offer.
In the past, representatives from Volunteers of America and the Boy Scouts have prayed, as have council members and city staff. Prayers are offered at a podium facing the councilors, and people are not asked to stand.
Head Pastor of Cornerstone Church Tony Forman said he is grateful he can pray before council meetings and ask for wisdom for city leaders. He said other pastors he’s spoken with feel the same and don’t take the opportunity for granted.
“That’s how I see the invocation,” Forman said. “It’s acknowledging that corporately we need to do the wise thing, and want to, and we’re asking for the Creator’s help in that process, to work through us. The God of the Bible indicates that’s what he wants to do is make known his wisdom through those who are submitted to him.”
Forman said he does not modify his prayers to make them less offensive by removing the name of Jesus or anything like that, but he does seek to keep the prayers focused on asking for God’s guidance for the city leaders.
“At the same time, I don’t overtly try to poke people with a stick, so to speak. My desire is not to intentionally aggravate anyone,” Forman said.
Forman said he was concerned but not surprised that a case regarding prayer before meetings made it to the Supreme Court. He said he hopes the Supreme Court Justices will remember that the intent of the Establishment Clause in the Constitution was to not allow government to force its people to practice one religion over another, which was spawned from strict religious adherence requirements in England.
“We should agree to disagree, agreeably,” Forman said.
Kinskey said he will follow the proceedings of the case and will adhere to whatever the Supreme Court decides, though he thinks “it would be tragic if the Supreme Court says we can’t open a City Council meeting without invoking God’s name and guidance.”
The case is expected to be decided in early summer 2014.