Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said he has brought the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to review a case dealing with prayer at local government meetings to the attention of the Hammond City Council.
The Hammond City Council typically starts meetings with a prayer led by City Councilman Anthony Higgs, and McDermott said he's always “felt uncomfortable” at the practice.
“I'm afraid one day Hammond is going to get sued for violating the First Amendment,” McDermott said, “and those lawsuits are very expensive.”
McDermott took to Facebook following the Supreme Court's decision to review a lower court's ruling barring Greece, N.Y., from allowing prayer at the beginning of town board meetings. In a more than decadelong practice, the town board has invited local chaplains to conduct an opening prayer, with the majority carrying Christian messages, court records state.
McDermott said he wants council members to be aware their practice has similarities to Greece's board, explaining the prayers sometimes use Bible versus and end with an “amen” to Jesus Christ.
“Let me start by saying that I am a confirmed Catholic, in fact, I attended Law School at the University of Notre Dame. However, I am a believer of the 1st Amendment's separation between church and state,” McDermott wrote. “I don't think it is appropriate to begin government meetings with prayers of any kind...”
McDermott questioned on the social media website how people would feel if a council member prayed before meetings to Allah or the Koran.
“I have a feeling if that were the case, there would be outrage in Hammond and a demand to end the practice of state-sanctioned endorsements of one religion over another,” McDermott wrote.
Higgs did not return a request for comment as of Friday afternoon.
The practice of praying at meetings spans beyond Hammond in the region. The Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority starts each meeting with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. The prayer is an extemporaneous one led by authority Vice President the Rev. Marion Johnson, who is pastor of Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church.
Since Portage Mayor James Snyder took office in 2012, a minister has opened each City Council meeting with a prayer. In Merrillville, representatives from town churches are asked to provide the prayers.
Merrillville Town Council member Richard Hardaway said he sees no problem with the practice.
“If seven of us are sitting up there on the dais, if we are kind of like covered in prayer, I think we will make the right decision. Even if prior to the meeting we may have thought one way, I think once we have prayer and God is invoked into the meeting, God has the way,” Hardaway said. “If he doesn't change it, he will rearrange it for us.”