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Water it down

Religion | Court rules that prayers opening a town's board meetings were too Christian

Issue: "Effective Compassion," June 16, 2012

Secularist advocacy groups trying to ban prayer at public meetings won a legal victory on May 17. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled against the town board of Greece, N.Y., which opens meetings with prayers. The town had invited pastors and lay people from a variety of denominations and religions-even atheists-to say these prayers. Some non-Christian clerics, including a Wiccan priestess, had offered a few prayers in 2008.

Nevertheless, the 2nd Court concluded that "the town's prayer practice had the effect of affiliating the town with Christianity," affirming arguments made by plaintiffs' lawyers from Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Christians have uttered most of the prayers, the decision noted, and they have often included Christian terms like "Jesus" or "Your Son." Citing a Supreme Court precedent in Marsh v. Chambers (1983), the court conceded that prayers at government meetings are not by definition unconstitutional. But it contended that the board needed to go out of its way to make the prayers nonsectarian.

Greece city officials countered that almost all the formal religious organizations in the town are Christian, leaving them few options for non-Christian supplicants. The court suggested that the board might have pursued non-Christian clergy in the surrounding region to fulfill its religious diversity quota. The Alliance Defense Fund, which represented the town, plans to appeal the ruling.

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Game over

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The appointment of a bisexual pastor in Saint Clair, Mo., has caused controversy in an improbable venue: a church softball league. When pastors at three Saint Clair area Baptist congregations discovered that Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell of St. John United Church of Christ is openly bisexual, they announced that their churches would no longer compete against St. John's team.

Ben Kingston, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church, said, "We call ourselves a Christian softball league. And if we call ourselves that, we want to be that." St. John Church decided to withdraw its team from the league in order to defuse the controversy.

Darnell lamented the fracas, saying, "This shouldn't be happening in this day and age." The United Church of Christ, formed in a denominational merger in the 1950s, is one of the most liberal of America's mainline denominations, and was one of the first publicly to support gay marriage. -Thomas Kidd

And then there were six

A U.S. district court judge in May proposed a remarkable solution for making Ten Commandments displays constitutional: Remove the four commandments that directly refer to God. Judge Michael Urbanski ordered his Virginia case's plaintiffs, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, and defendant, the Giles County school board, to go into mediation to work out a compromise over the display. It seems unlikely that the school or its supporters will have any interest in a redacted version of the commandments.

Narrows High School, in southwest Virginia, had displayed the Ten Commandments for a decade prior to this lawsuit. The ACLU claims that the exhibit represents a violation of the First Amendment's ban on an establishment of religion. Mathew Staver of Liberty Counsel, who is defending the school, argues that the motivation for posting the Old Testament statutes is not religious, but historical and educational. The ACLU contends that showing these Mosaic laws on school grounds can only be constitutional if the Ten Commandments stand among other religious documents in a pluralistic exhibit. -Thomas Kidd

Thomas Kidd
Thomas Kidd

Thomas is a professor of history at Baylor University and a senior fellow at Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots. Follow Thomas on Twitter @ThomasSKidd.

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