SALT LAKE CITY — Local religious and government leaders are divided in their reactions to a Supreme Court decision allowing sectarian prayers in government meetings.
One concern raised by petitioners was that minority religions in an area would not have their voice heard. But that worry was not shared by Rabbi Benny Zippel of the Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, who said he has been included in prayers in Utah on many levels, from Senate sessions to town hall meetings. He called Monday’s decision “a major step in the right direction for this country."
“Our Founding Fathers of the United States of America were devout leaders who, in no way, shape or form, wanted to exclude the awareness of God from our midst,” he said.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivered the majority opinion in the case of the Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway et al.
“That the First Congress provided for the appointment of chaplains only days after approving language for the First Amendment demonstrates that the Framers considered legislative prayer a benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society,” Kennedy wrote in his opinion.
This ruling struck down the petitioners’ claim that Christian-specific prayers were an endorsement of Christianity and discriminated against minority faiths. They also requested that prayers given in government settings be generic and inclusive.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was among those pleased with the ruling:
“We applaud the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the long standing practice of prayer within government meetings. We believe the ruling upholds the rich American tradition of religious participation in the public square,” LDS Church spokesman Cody Craynor said.
The Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City issued the following statement: "As a nation that is founded on the principle of religious liberty, we are grateful that the Supreme Court confirmed the right of adults to freely express their religious beliefs through prayer at public meetings,” Colleen Gudreau, spokeswoman for the diocese, said.
The Utah Supreme Court handed down a similar ruling almost 25 years ago, allowing city councils to pray in meetings.
Some municipalities in Utah have supported and encouraged a prayer, invocation or other reverential moment before government meetings, while others call the practice and Monday’s ruling “divisive.”
For instance, Salt Lake City Council does not pray before its meetings. Its meetings begin with the “prayer of the republic” or the Pledge of Allegiance, according to Salt Lake City Council Vice Chair Luke Garrott. The city does not plan to change course following Monday’s meeting.
“We’ve just found that it becomes more of a distraction and more divisive, and it really gets in the way of us doing business,” Garrott said.
Some nonreligious groups were unhappy with the ruling as well, including Dan Ellis, president of Atheists of Utah and regional representative for the American Atheists, who called the ruling “silly” and a waste of time and taxpayer resources.
Civil rights attorney Stewart Gollan is concerned the court's decision will lead to marginalization of minority groups.
“I think it opens the door for the kind of consistent, constant messaging and support of a majority opinion,” he said. “When I read the Constitution, it was specifically intended to guarantee inclusion of minority groups."
According to Zippel, prayer in government is not divisive but is part of a wide tapestry of differences with God at the center.
“A belief in a God does not in any way, shape or form imply that we should all be the same,” Zippel said.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert was similarly supportive of the ruling and said prayer in government meetings does not violate the Constitution.
"Regardless of denomination or religion, prayer is never meant to divide people, rather to inspire and bring us together," he said.
The Salt Lake County Council has adopted a hybrid system allowing for any individual, regardless of their belief, to offer a prayer, thought or moment of silence.
“We don’t want to step on any First Amendment rights,” said Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton.
Utah Senate President Wayne Niederhauser said the ruling supports the state Senate’s tradition of beginning legislative days with Buddhist, LDS, Jewish, Islamic, Catholic, Protestant and other prayers. Those who say prayers can say “what is in their heart, using the language they feel is appropriate,” Niederhauser said.
The Sandy Republican disagrees with Kennedy's opinion that prayers in civic settings are ceremonial and designed to give respect to local religious leaders.
“I believe that prayer has a purpose and value greater than just recognizing leaders and institutions. In our experience, legislative prayer provides a quiet moment that reminds us of our relationship and duty to God and all his children, and the diversity of faith in those we represent,” he said.
A few of Utah’s congressmen weighed in on the ruling as well.
“It’s absolutely the right thing. It’s the American way to say a prayer before a meeting,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, said.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who was involved with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and other religious liberty legislation in his career, called Monday’s ruling “monumental.” He said those who argued for proscribed, generic prayers were off course, as that would involve unnecessary government meddling with religion.
“It’s about time the Supreme Court made this decision because we’re a nation of faith and people of faith should not be relegated to a second-class condition,” Hatch said.