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Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Prayer at Public Meetings

Recent news reports about a high school football coach being disciplined for praying on the football field have raised a few questions about the constitutional limits on prayer and governments. Specifically, the question that this raises is how the Establishment Clause squares with the Free Exercise Clause. One area that received a lot of attention a year or so ago is prayer at government board and council meetings. We wrote about last year's Supreme Court case on this issue previously, and this issue is the subject of this month's Ancel Glink Q&A (see below):

From Ancel Glink's Monthly Q&A from November 2015:

Can a public body begin its meetings with a religious prayer?
ANSWER: Yes, but with limits. The United States Supreme Court has decided many cases on this subject but its decisions do not give clear guidance. If a public body wishes to include a prayer as part of its meeting, here are a few guidelines to follow so as to avoid conflicts with the First Amendment:
  1. Seek out clergy from a variety of denominations and faith traditions to lead the prayer.
  2. Include a statement at the top of the printed agenda which says that says that the government body "does not endorse religious faith. The prayer is intended to lend solemnity to the public meeting and invite an attitude of respect and consideration."
  3. Request the cleric to speak in nonsectarian terms, not referring to any specific denomination or creed, nor advocating particular beliefs, emphasizing the purpose of the prayer as stated on the agenda. If the cleric does not abide by this request, don't invite him/her back.
  4. Do not provide compensation to the cleric from public funds
  5. Conduct the prayer before the roll call which begins the official meeting. Typically the Pledge of Allegiance is recited before the roll call; this would be the best moment for the prayer.
Original Question of the Month Authored by Paul Keller, Ancel Glink


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