Absence of Prayer at Council Meetings Sparks Debate in Galloway Township
Started under Mayor Tom Bassford and continued under Keith Hartman, invocations have been missing for a few months, and residents have noticed.
The issue of the separation of church and state has been part of American history since the country's inception, and now the centuries-old debate has taken on a local feel.
Galloway Township Council meetings have begun with an invocation from a representative of a local religious organization since Tom Bassford was mayor, but the practice has been absent from proceedings since the summer.
On Tuesday night, Nov. 13, the issue came to the forefront.
“I’m not that religious, but I come to the meetings and I like to hear the ministers,” resident Tom Mitchell said during the public comment portion of Tuesday night’s council meeting. “They’re part of the community, and I feel better when they’re here. I like to hear the different points of view. It helps me be a better person.”
Township Manager Arch Liston took responsibility for no longer allowing an invocation prior to meetings.
“In concept, it was a good idea, but the problem we were running into is that we were asking them to make it non-denominational, but the clergy went against our wishes and made it very denominational,” Liston said. “The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals has made it clear there’s no place for prayer in meetings, and from a business standpoint, I don’t want the ACLU filing a lawsuit.”
The court doesn’t forbid the act of public prayer prior to council meetings, but recommends aggressively limiting the words in prayer, so as not to allow for a government endorsement of a religion. The ruling by the court of appeals on a case out of North Carolina in 2011 stood pat in January of this year, when the Supreme Court refused to hear the case.
Former mayor Keith Hartman was also concerned about the township being sued, but stated that during his time a resolution championed by himself and passed in 2011 put the township in a position to prevail against any lawsuit brought against it concerning an invocation.
“(Previously) we had the manager’s secretary calling the same seven or eight churches to come out and do invocations,” Hartman said Tuesday night. “We did some extensive research into case law and found we had to address the establishment cause.”
Hartman said the township’s policy was to invite every religious institution, regardless of belief, to give an invocation. If any religion was not represented by an institution in the township, Galloway would contact institutions at the county level in an effort to get a fair representation, Hartman said.
“If we invited faiths and they didn’t respond, it didn’t matter as long as we made the effort and we were not restrictive,” Hartman said.
He added the policy also allowed for residents to continue to exercise any religion they wished.
The policy was passed via resolution in 2011, and no resolution has been officially passed to overturn that policy.
In its place, the township holds a moment of silence prior to the beginning of each meeting.
“A moment of silence is the fairest form,” Liston said.
Typically, Mayor Don Purdy leads the moment of silence, asking residents to keep a particular person or group in their thoughts.
“We can always shift around to anyone who wants to lead,” Purdy said. “We can work with the way it’s structured.”
Purdy said he did like that local church officials were afforded the opportunity to go before the public at council meetings and speak about what's happening at their churches.
"They come in here for the love of their community," Purdy said.
Galloway Democratic Club President Kevin Krumaker said via email Tuesday night that he believes invocations "can be implemented to follow a few best practice guidelines," including: "No expenditure of Township funds for religious activity; and no favoritism of one religious denomination over another."
Purdy said it’s easier to maintain the separation, and that he enjoys the way it’s done right now.
“If we were starting from scratch, I would say a moment of silence is the best route to go, but when you already have a policy in place, why would you overturn it,” Hartman said. “You have a strong faith group in Galloway, and they want that invocation. Why would you stop, because you’re afraid of getting sued? Well you can get sued the other way, if you don’t have it.”
He added that he had been in discussions with the ACJF, which said it would defend the township against any lawsuit brought against it by the ACLU.
Township Solicitor Michael Fitzgerald acknowledged the risk factors of having an invocation prior to council meetings.
“The risk remains for a misstep and that leads to litigation,” Fitzgerald said. “Not only do we have to pay our own costs, but with fee shifting, there’s the possibility we’d have to pay the plaintiff’s costs. You can try to control what is said when someone comes in, but is it prudent to try to do so when you can just have a moment of silence?
“You can always be second guessed, and it can cost a lot of money.”
Councilman John Mooney called the controversy a case of judicial activisim.
“Social progressives are driving public policy and religious beliefs are sitting in the back of the bus,” Mooney said. “Until the courts retreat from being the second legislative branch they’ve become, I don’t see much hope there.”
“I would tell the people your vote is important because it’s important to elect officials who appoint judges that don’t misinterpret the constitution,” Councilman Brian Tyrrel said. “The open discussion is not allowed, but my faith and value guide my decisions.”
The man who was mayor when invocations were first introduced to the township would like to see them continue.
“I didn’t think much of it,” Bassford said of the absence of invocations. “There was no vote. It just happened. Once in a while we had some people deviate from what they were supposed to do, but nothing major. Congress starts each session with a prayer. They can do it and we can’t? There’s something wrong with this picture.”
"The U.S. Congress opens in prayer and Galloway Council can do the same," Krumaker said. "Keep in mind, the House of Representatives uses an on-staff chaplain to administer the prayer. A non-denominational prayer can be read, and it is constitutional. A possible avenue for Galloway Council is to have a council member lead the invocation as was done in the past."
Council members led non-denominational prayers prior to Bassford's time as mayor.