Supreme Court ruling may not immediately affect Sussex

Decision finds governments can open meetings with prayer
Sussex County Council members Vance Phillips, left, and President Mike Vincent bow their heads before a meeting. BY RON MACARTHUR
May 5, 2014

A May 12 Supreme Court ruling allowing public prayer at meetings may not have an immediate effect on Sussex County Council. Council was sued in 2011 for its use of a prayer to start meetings.

“Since Sussex County is subject to a court order, we would have to evaluate the Supreme Court decision and how it impacts the court order, and that would dictate what we do in the future,” said Sussex County Attorney J. Everett Moore.

Council will discuss the ruling during its Tuesday, May 13 meeting.

The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in a case involving the Town of Greece, N.Y., that opening local government meetings with sectarian prayers doesn't violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution as long as no religion is endorsed and no residents are coerced. The Supreme Court found that legislative prayer has become part of the country's heritage and tradition, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance.

The long-awaited ruling came seven years after two women sued the town for its practice of opening meetings with prayer. Although the town featured a chaplain of the month open to all faiths, almost all prayers were Christian.

“This case is very fact-specific relating to any prayer being used,” Moore said, adding the town had operated in good faith to include other prayers from other religions.

County council recited The Lord's Prayer for decades, until it became the subject of a lawsuit, Mullin v. Sussex County, filed in June 2011 in U.S. District Court by Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of four Sussex residents.

Under the consent decree reached in mediation, the county agreed to stop reciting The Lord's Prayer, and as of Sept. 11, 2012, started using the Old Testament's 23rd Psalm to open meetings.

U.S. District Court Judge Leonard P. Stark said council's longstanding practice of starting each meeting with the recitation of the Protestant version of the prayer likely violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it constitutes government endorsement of the Christian faith.

Council members Vance Phillips, R-Laurel, and Sam Wilson, R-Georgetown, voted against agreeing to the court order. “I can't speak for the entire council, but Sam and I have already spoken, and we would be in favor of returning to our 40-year tradition of opening meetings with The Lord's Prayer,” Phillips said.

However, he said, a decision can only be reached after consultation with the county's legal team. “Ultimately, I believe most of the council will pray on this matter thoroughly before any decision on how we move forward is made,” he said.

Wilson said, in his opinion, as the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court has the final say. “Anything else under that is baloney. We should forget the lower courts,” he said.

“I believe that the Supreme Court made the right decision. America is a country founded upon Judeo-Christian principles, and prayer has guided us from the beginning,” Phillips said. “Whether being said by George Washington at Valley Forge, by families at dinner and bedtime or by county council before its weekly meeting, prayer is the foundation of a civilized and free society.”