U.S. Supreme Court to decide fate of Whitehall supervisor’s prayer in spring

B y Lee Tugas

The wording of Whitehall Supervisor George Armstrong’s prayer at the start of county supervisor meetings may be pared or scrapped altogether by the U.S. Supreme Court come spring.

In fact, the wording of a lot of opening prayers of local government bodies nationwide may be pared or scrapped by the Supreme Court.

But at least Armstrong will have an author’s pride in knowing that his prayer made it into print.

In volume 35, issue 1 of “New York State Association of Counties News,” a glossy magazine as slick as any on display in a grocery check-out line, Armstrong’s prayer is quoted in its entirety as an example of  the kind of legislative prayer that may go the way of prayer in school –– that is, the way of the dinosaur.

As Patrick Cummings, NYSAC assistant counsel, writes in the magazine, “The prayer below is from Washington County Supervisor Hon. George Armstrong. Prayers like this, said at the beginning of local government meetings, are the subject of the Supreme Court case, Town of Greece vs. Galloway.

Cummings goes onto explain that in this case, heard by the U.S. Supreme Court in November, Galloway’s principal arguments against the prayers said at Greece Town Board meetings is that they “prefer” Christianity over other faiths; that the practice is “sectarian;” and that legislative prayer is meant for legislative bodies comprised of legislators, not town boards comprised of residents.

Both legislator and resident

Armstrong, as town supervisor, is both resident and legislator. When he chairs a town board meeting, where he traditionally opens the meeting with a prayer, he is, according to the arguments in Town of Greece vs. Galloway, acting as a resident. When Armstrong votes on legislation at a Washington County Board of Supervisors meeting, however, he acts as a legislator.

It would seem from the semantics of Greece vs. Galloway, which Cummings said “reads like a constitutional law professor’s final exam question,” that in May or June, or, if necessary, July, the Supreme Court will decide whether or not Armstrong can read his thanksgiving prayer at meetings.

History of anti-prayer movement more than 50-years-old

Cummings outlined the movement against prayer in government settings. It started in 1962, when the Supreme Court, ruling on the case of Engel vs. Vitale, banned prayer in public schools.

In 1983, ruling on the case of March vs. Chambers, the Supreme Court limited prayer in legislative bodies to a generic prayer that did not promote any one particular religion over another. In 1984, in Lynch vs. Donnelly, the Supreme Court similarly ruled that religious displays could not promote one religion above others.

The case of the town of Greece

Cummings, in his article, explained that the Greece Town Board permits “anyone to say a prayer regardless of religious beliefs or background.” Two citizens, however, sued in federal court in 2008 that since the prayers given were primarily Christian-oriented, they violated the restrictions set on legislative prayer by the 1983 case, March vs. Chambers.

Five years later, Town of Greece vs. Galloway wound up before the U.S. Supreme Court. On Nov. 6, 2013, oral arguments by both sides were presented. Since the Supreme Court can take as late as July to decide yet another controversial prayer case, there is no way to know what fate awaits “legislative prayer.”

“For now,” Cummings writes, “we wait until the Supreme Court offers further guidance.”

How did Armstrong get involved?

Armstrong is involved in the case both by chance and because of the far-reaching effects any Supreme Court decision can produce, right down to the local level.

“Stephen J. Acquario, executive director of NYSAC News, came to our Nov. 13 Washington County Board of Supervisors meeting,” Armstrong said.

“He came to speak to us, and he heard my prayer. He was so impressed with it that he asked me for a copy.

“Little did I know this prayer would be chosen to represent prayers offered at meetings. Sometimes, you never know,” Armstrong said, adding that his guess would be that the final court verdict may likely restrict prayer at the town level.

“Of course, the lower you go, the greater chance you have that people might get offended. I’ve tried to keep my prayers non-sectarian.”

 

 

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