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Orleans Legislature closely watching Supreme Court case on prayer

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 24 May 2013 at 12:00 am

Photo by Tom Rivers – Orleans County Legislator Henry Smith Jr. started pushing for prayers to begin each County Legislature meeting about five years ago when he was the group’s chairman. Many local pastors have attended Legislature meetings since then, leading the group in prayer.

ALBION – When Henry Smith Jr. started as chairman of the Orleans County Legislature in January 2008, one of his first initiatives was to start each meeting with prayer.

Smith, in the five years since, has contacted many clergy leaders in the county, welcoming them to the Legislature to offer a prayer to start each meeting.

“It’s good to have everybody involved in the county, including the pastors,” Smith said. “I’ve tried to reach out to all of them.”

Catholic priests, evangelical pastors, the Unitarian-Universalist leader, jail chaplain and nondenominational church leaders have all attended at least one Legislature meeting to lead the group in an opening prayer.

County Attorney David Schubel believes the practice falls within the Constitutional parameters because the Legislature isn’t restricting churches and religions.

“It’s an open process,” Schubel said. “It’s more spiritual than religious.”

Schubel, Smith and other county officials say they will be watching a Supreme Court case with interest in the coming months. The nation’s highest court will rule whether the town of Greece’s practice of having local clergy deliver prayers at its government meetings violates the U.S. Constitution.

Opening prayers have been part of Congress and many state governing bodies for more than 200 years.

The Greece case says the town violated the Constitution by repeatedly having Christian clergy conduct prayers at the start of meetings. The Supreme Court case focuses on whether the repeated use of Christian prayers violates the first 10 words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

The Orleans Legislature has almost exclusively welcomed Christian pastors. Sometimes legislators, including Smith, will share the opening prayer and those prayers often include references to “Jesus.”

Court of Appeals judges have said public prayer is fine, but all faiths should be invited to participate. The Supreme Court will hear the case in its next term, which begins in October.

Smith said he wants to see prayer continued at the beginning of each Legislature meeting, the second and fourth Wednesdays at 4:30 p.m.

“We’re getting too sensitive in this country,” he said. “You can’t say anything. What’s wrong with a prayer?”