INDIANAPOLIS | The Hammond City Council likely will again debate the merits of opening its sessions with prayer after a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that prayer at local government meetings is constitutionally permissible, even if those prayers regularly favor one religion over others.
Council President Michael Opinker last year halted prayer at meetings of the city's governing board following a decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that found Christian prayers at meetings of the Greece, N.Y., town council suggested an "official affiliation with a particular religion" in violation of the U.S. Constitution's ban on establishing a state religion.
In a 5-4 decision that featured two concurring opinions and two dissents, the Supreme Court overturned that ruling and affirmed the practice as consistent with American traditions and not coercive to nonbelievers.
"These ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the high court. "Even those who disagree as to religious doctrine may find common ground in the desire to show respect for the divine in all aspects of their lives and being."
Justice Elena Kagan, in her dissent, said individuals should not be forced to sit through prayers to gods they might not recognize simply to participate in public life.
"When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines," she said.
Opinker, D-5th, did not return a telephone message seeking comment on the court's decision. Hammond Councilman Anthony Higgs, D-3rd, said he wants prayer "back on the agenda as quickly as possible."
"I feel that I need God in every aspect of my life, and it's very important that you give him the praise and glory so that he can give you direction in making good decisions," Higgs said.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., an attorney who expected the prayer ban to be upheld, said he was "shocked" by the ruling and looks forward to seeing how the City Council responds.
The Democratic mayor said he won't pressure council members for or against prayer, but believes it would be a big mistake if the council resumes prayer and ignores the diversity of beliefs among Hammond residents.
"I'm never offended when a Christian prayer is done because I'm Christian, but we do have people that practice the Muslim religion in the city of Hammond; we do have people that practice the Jewish faith," McDermott said. "Whether or not they're offended, I guess the Supreme Court doesn't care."
Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller, a Republican who asked the Supreme Court on behalf of 21 states to preserve prayer, said he was glad the justices recognized the role of prayer in public life.
"We contended elected officials ought not be placed in the position of having to screen prayers for sectarian references, and we are pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has in part agreed and underscored the validity of this honored tradition in representative democracy," Zoeller said.