When the Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that state legislatures could open their sessions with prayer, the justices probably had no idea how that ruling would be so misconstrued in subsequent years.
The court was straightforward in its ruling, deciding that legislative prayers are OK as long as they do not proselytize, advance or disparage any one religion. In the years since, politicians and citizens have challenged what prayers can be said, who can say them and whether prayers should be screened in advance.
The Supreme Court is once again embroiled in the controversy. This time by way of an amicus curiae, or friend of the court, brief filed by 23 states asking the high court to overturn a Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that declared a New York town’s practice of opening its legislative sessions with prayer as violating the First Amendment Establishment Clause.
The West Virginia legislature begins its session with prayer. So does the Maryland Senate. But prayer by the Maryland House of Delegates differs from most statehouses across the country. Instead of clergy offering the prayers in the Maryland House, the politicians themselves handle the duty. They began the practice about a decade ago when some delegates complained the prayers had become “too Christian.”
West Virginia joined the brief filed with the Supreme Court but Maryland did not. That is too bad. Maryland lawmakers clearly need the Supreme Court to reexamine the whole prayer question and come down with a more definitive ruling.
In commenting on the high court brief, Patrick Morrisey, West Virginia Attorney General, commented: “West Virginia and other states filed this brief because opening a legislative session with prayer dates back to the founding of our republic. West Virginia has a proud tradition of beginning a public meeting with a time for prayer, and I believe this practice should continue and the expression of faith should not be quashed.”
If legislative bodies stick with the original intent of the Supreme Court’s ruling that prayer does not proselytize, promote or disparage any particular religion, the practice should be permitted. It is when people stray from those instructions that the issue becomes murky.