By Elon Glucklich
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday gives towns the clearest protection yet to hold a prayer before city council meetings.
Touching on an issue that for decades has drawn controversy and sparked lawsuits across the country, the Supreme Court said in a 5-to-4 decision that a prayer before public meetings doesn’t violate constitutional bans against government-sponsored religion.
The case centered around a New York town that appointed a chaplain for monthly prayers before council meetings. But Monday’s ruling has national ramifications. And it just validated what at least two Central Oregon communities, Redmond and Madras, have long done on their own.
Redmond city councilors have held a prayer before their twice-monthly meetings for more than 45 years.
In 2006, the council voted 6-to-1 to set guidelines for the premeeting prayer, according to The Bulletin’s archives, seeking to open it up to faiths beyond evangelical Christianity. The dissenting councilor said he felt prayer had no place at a public meeting.
But Monday’s ruling seems to offer broad support for prayers by local governments that choose to hold them.
Reached Monday, Redmond City Manager Keith Witcosky referred questions to Mayor George Endicott, who didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Madras has taken a less formal approach to prayer at public meetings. A city councilor typically leads a prayer before the start of each meeting, Mayor Melanie Widmer said. She said no one from the community has objected to it.
“We’ve only had people support it. It hasn’t been controversial,” Widmer said. She added that the Supreme Court decision “is a nice confirmation that we can carry on.”
Others said the court ruling wouldn’t impact public meetings at all.
Bend city councilors don’t hold a prayer before meetings, and there’s no immediate plan to start, city manager Eric King said.
“I suppose the council at some point might elect do that, and the Supreme Court decision does provide a clear path” for prayer, King said. “But right now there isn’t much of an impact on Bend.”
Prineville has occasionally found itself at the center of the politics-and-religion debate. The city for years displayed a Nativity scene outside City Hall around Christmas. The display prompted the Freedom From Religion Foundation to file a complaint against the city in 2010. Prineville officials have said they’ve forged a compromise by opening space in front of City Hall for other displays.
But it’s uncertain if the prayer ruling could affect how the Prineville City Council conducts its meetings. The city’s mayor and city administrator didn’t return calls seeking comment Monday.
Others seemed reluctant to even discuss the issue.
Asked whether Sisters might start holding a prayer before council meetings, city manager Andrew Gorayeb’s response was brief. “I’m not saying,” Gorayeb said. He said he would ask Sisters city councilors for their thoughts.
La Pine City Manager Rick Allen said the issue hasn’t come up there. The council recites the Pledge of Allegiance before each meeting but doesn’t hold a prayer.
“I don’t anticipate any changes,” Allen said Monday.
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