Recently, an article was written on a proposal by Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming to limit religious officials’ invocations at Suffolk County legislative meetings [“Fleming Seeks To Solidify Rules Regarding Religious Speech At Public Sessions,” 27east.com, February 22]. Fleming has offered that limitation is necessary in light of two recent invocations that, in her opinion, went too specific in their prayer. Fleming objects to a clergy member making remarks regarding valuing and protecting human life.
As the article noted, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that legislative bodies, like the Suffolk County Legislature, are within their right to open sessions with a prayer. Multiple other decisions from the Supreme Court also stand for the premise that the Constitution’s Establishment Clause was never meant to prevent legislative prayer, which created the proper deliberative mood and acknowledged religion’s role in society.
In 2013, the nation’s highest court held that the content of a clergy member’s prayer does not need to be nonsectarian, because such a requirement would place the courts in the role of arbiters of religious speech, which would involve the government in religion to an extent that is impermissible under the Establishment Clause.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, widely regarded as one of the court’s moderates, delivered the court’s official reasoning: “To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.”
The court did offer a caveat in the recent case when it stated: “If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort.”
At no point in the examples cited by Fleming is there a pro-Christian message being stated. In fact, many faiths, including sects of Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, believe in preserving all life. Moreover, the County Legislature routinely invites clergy from non-Christian religions to offer pre-meeting invocations.
This writer urges Legislator Fleming and her colleagues to work to accept people of all faiths rather than policing the words of religious officials.
Meesha N. Johnson
One fine body…