Officials in New Hampshire say a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on prayer at public meetings is unlikely to change the way boards conduct business.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 ruling last week, upheld prayer at public meetings.
The ruling stemmed from a case in New York state. It determined prayer in such a setting is not unconstitutional unless it intimidates, coerces or otherwise attempts to convert those with conflicting beliefs.
In New Hampshire, moments of silence seem to be favored over public prayer at town and school meetings.
“I have numerous times been part of meetings with moments of silence, mostly to honor someone whose life was lost, such as a town employee or volunteer, or when there has been a major event such as September 11 or the Boston Marathon bombings,” said Sullivan County Manager Jessie Levine, the former Bedford town manager. “I cannot, however, ever recall a prayer or invocation at a public meeting.”
Auburn Town Administrator Bill Herman said in 30 years in municipal government, he’s experienced many moments of silence, but has yet to hear a prayer during a meeting.
“Generally, my belief is that local government is not a place for politics or prayer,” he said. “Not everyone shares the same beliefs and philosophies, and local government in New Hampshire is designed and intended to be inclusive of the community as a whole. Prayer is a deeply personal function for individuals and I think is best left in that mode.”
Others, however, say that expressions of faith are appropriate.
“I personally have no objections to prayer at local government meetings, as long as the prayer remains non-denominational so as not to exclude any specific religion,” Hooksett School Board member John Lyscars.
“I would not have a problem with prayers at meetings, but in Hooksett we have never had official prayers offered at general meetings,” said school board member, Jim Sullivan, who also chairs Hooksett Town Council. “Town memorial services, veteran gatherings, etc., would be, of course, a different situation. There are national-level prayers offered at congressional meetings and the President's inauguration, so there is a place for it, again depending on the occasion.”
Will either of Hooksett’s boards consider embracing prayer at meetings?
“I wouldn’t think so. Maybe we should pray for a high school solution,” he joked, alluding to an ongoing debate in Hooksett.
Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, said he doesn’t want to see the government undermine the ruling.
“I support the court’s ruling, (so) I would be disappointed to see the government attempt to limit people’s free speech,” Sanborn said.
Michele Dillon, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, said the constitutional idea of “religious neutrality” remains difficult to put into practice.
“Given the cultural importance of religion in everyday life in the U.S., one can understand why local communities and citizens want to have symbolic religious expressions during formal events, such as inaugurations and meetings, even though the specific religious content typically excludes certain religions and/or non-believers,” she said.
Dillon noted the timing of the Supreme Court's decision is ironic.
“More Americans today are identifying as having no religion — three times as many today are religiously unaffiliated compared to as recently as the late 1990s (an increase from 7 percent to 20 percent),” she said.
Some officials believe a board or committee’s policy should be set by those charged with upholding the will of the people.
“Like any policy decisions made by the governing body, there is a public process for supporting or decrying the decision,” Levine said.
“Just like a governing body decides how the public participates at its meeting, the governing body can decide what else is appropriate for the meeting.”