Sectarian Legislative Prayer – Walking In The Religious Minority’s Shoes

  • October 3, 2014

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent legislative prayer decision (Greece v. Galloway) generally sanctions sectarian prayers before meetings of local legislative bodies except for the most egregious circumstances.  In opposing the Court’s decision, Justice Elana Kagan astutely concluded that “[w]hen the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another.  And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines.”  At a recent county commission meeting, a local commissioner may have experienced the lesson of Justice Kagan’s admonition.

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The Escambia County, FL Commission allows sectarian invocations at its public meetings by a community member of any faith or religion.  At the September 25th Commission meeting, David Suhor, who is Pagan, recited a pagan prayer song “calling of the directions north, east, south and west.”  Regarding his prayer, Mr. Suhor later stated “[i]n a way I would like for other people to experience what it's like when I go to a meeting and am asked to pray against my conscience."

Mr. Suhor’s prayer apparently offended at least one person in the room. According to a news report, County Commissioner Wilson Robertson, “left the room because of his Christian beliefs,” and he stated “[p]eople may not realize it, but when we invite someone a minister to pray they are praying for the county commissioners for us to make wise decisions and I'm just not going to have a pagan or satanic minister pray for me."

ADL opposes sectarian legislative prayer practices because of the religious exclusion and division resulting from them – particularly for religious minorities.  If the commissioner does not want a community member to pray for him in a faith that offends his conscience, perhaps he and other commission members should adopt a moment of silence policy or at least a non-sectarian invocation policy.

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