Brentwood officials have been asked to stop reciting a Christian prayer before council meetings or the town could face a lawsuit.
Members of the Washington D.C.-based Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which describes itself as a “religious liberty watchdog group,” said they sent letters to the town in April and September requesting that town officials stop reciting the Lord’s Prayer, a central prayer in Christianity, before council meetings. The organization suggested that the town could start using a more general prayer that does not favor one religion.
The recitation of the prayer violates the First Amendment of the Constitution because it promotes Christianity exclusively over other religious faiths, said Ayesha Khan, legal director of the group.
“The Constitution prohibits them taking sides in religious matters,” Khan said. “They can’t take the prayer of a particular faith group to say at every meeting.”
Khan said she sent the letters on behalf of at least one town resident who feels uncomfortable about the prayer being said at meetings, although she declined to name the resident.
Mayor Roger Rudder said town officials have recited the prayer before the start of meetings for as long as he could remember. Rudder was a council member from 2005 to 2009 and was elected mayor in 2011. Before meetings, Rudder leads the prayer as council members stand and residents are asked to stand, although no one is forced to pray, Rudder said.
He said the town also allows for a moment of silence before the prayer is recited so people of different faiths can say their own prayers. Rudder said he has not heard any complaints from residents about saying the prayer, and does not believe the town’s practice is wrong.
“I claim my right as a citizen to pray before I start a meeting,” Rudder said. “They have their rights as atheists to do whatever they want.”
Rudder said he does not believe the Lord’s Prayer can be regarded as an exclusively Christian prayer, because he said the prayer does not explicitly reference Christianity.
Khan said several courts have ruled that the Lord’s Prayer is quintessentially Christian.
Rudder said he would stop reciting the prayer only if council members voted to stop the practice, although there is no current proposal to stop saying the prayer.
Mark Graber, associate dean at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law, said the Supreme Court, in the case Marsh v. Chambers, said hiring a chaplain to say a prayer before the U.S. Congress was allowable, but the chaplains have to vary their prayers to that of different faiths or say general prayers that do not favor one religion.
The specific question of whether a local jurisdiction can say the Lord’s Prayer has not come before the Supreme Court, Graber said. But a decision on prayer in public schools has been made, the latest of which came when the Supreme Court ruled in the 1992 case Lee v. Weisman that saying a prayer at a graduation ceremony was unconstitutional because attendees were likely indirectly coerced by the practice, he said.
Still, he said he thinks the current Supreme Court justices would allow Brentwood to say the Lord’s Prayer, given the court’s ideological makeup of five conservatives and four liberals.
Khan said her group has litigated several other cases related to praying at local government meetings. In one case litigated by the group, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled in 2011 that the Forsyth County Board of Supervisors in North Carolina could not invite local clergymen to say mostly Christian prayers at board meetings. The Fourth Circuit includes Maryland.
There is no timeline for when the group will file a lawsuit, but Khan said she hopes the town will change its policy before the group takes action.
Town Councilwoman Nina Young said she believes there are larger issues facing the town, such as back taxes that businesses in the town owe that have not been collected. She said a fight over saying the prayer before meetings is not worth going to court over.
“This is such a small issue compared to the major issues facing the town,” she said.