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North Country officials weigh in on prayers at public meetings following Supreme Court debate


At a recent meeting of the Jefferson County Board of Legislators, Legislator Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville, stood in front of colleagues, department heads and employees and offered a brief prayer.

Mr. Ormsby asked that guidance be provided to board members during an anticipated debate over contentious budget issues and paused to remember the nation’s veterans on the day following Nov. 11.

Those in attendance bowed their heads in deference to the prayer, which lasted less than a minute and followed the pledge of allegiance. After Mr. Ormsby finished, board members took their seats for a public hearing about the 2014 budget.

Mr. Ormsby, who is a Christian, said the prayer helps him to put things in perspective.

“It’s about understanding the gravity of the decisions we are making and underscoring that we are sensitive to the people and the issues,” he said.

But next summer, Mr. Ormsby’s actions may be considered illegal.

The U.S. Supreme Court last week heard oral arguments in the first case to take up the issue of prayer before public meetings since 1983, when the Court ruled in Marsh v. Chambers that prayers before the Nebraska Legislature were not unconstitutional.

“To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, a violation of the Establishment Clause; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country,” a summary of the Court’s decision reads.

But in this new case, Town of Greece, N.Y., v. Susan Galloway, et al., a Jewish woman, Susan Galloway, claims that prayers said before town meetings were overtly Christian, did not allow for other viewpoints and made her feel alienated from her government. She and an atheist who is not named in the case sued the town to stop the practice.

The town defended the prayers, which began in 1999 under Supervisor John Auberger. Before that, council members observed a moment of silence, according to news reports.

A federal appeals court ruled that the practice violated the Constitution. The town and its attorneys are seeking a reversal of that decision.

The Supreme Court’s ruling could have broad implications, and if the decision of the Court of Appeals is upheld, it would almost certainly mean that prayers such as the one Mr. Ormsby offered Tuesday night would be outlawed.

But regardless of what the high court’s decision may be, north country government bodies appear ready to flout its determination, citing the importance of faith and prayer in their lives and in the decisions of the municipal organizations they represent.

If the Supreme Court outlaws prayer before public meetings, “they better cut my tongue out,” said Watertown Town Councilman Paul V. DeSormo, who has been delivering a prayer before Town Council meetings for 23 years.

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s just opening the door for communism and socialism and this country’s not communist...yet,” Mr. DeSormo said. “I don’t intend to stop unless I’m arrested.”

The prayers are “universal, generic and not meant to single anyone out,” Watertown Town Supervisor Joel R. Bartlett said.

“It’s been a tradition at our board meetings for a number of years. We hope to continue with it. We plan to continue with it,” Mr. Bartlett said.

The town has never received any complaints about the practice, he said.

In St. Lawrence and Lewis counties, the story is the same. Lawmakers defend their traditions and in some cases, insist that they will continue to pray at meetings no matter what decision is reached by the Supreme Court.

A prayer before St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators meeting is a tradition that goes back beyond recent memory.

“I think asking for divine guidance before a meeting is a good thing,” said Legislator Vernon D. “Sam” Burns, who offers the prayer. “No one has told me I have offended them. I try to be careful in what I say and what I ask for.”

Mr. Burns, a Catholic, does not make his prayer Christian but asks for help from the almighty God.

“My dad was a legislator, and he told me before they had prayers,” Mr. Burns said. “I don’t know if they rotated it or not.”

When Mr. Burns took office, the prayer was offered by Thomas A. Nichols, a lay minister. He and Mr. Burns took turns giving the prayer until Mr. Nichols left the board. Mr. Burns took over, although he would be willing to share.

Mr. Burns tailors his prayers to events of the day. Some of his invocations have asked for help for veterans, the St. Lawrence Psychiatric Center and issues legislators are debating.

“The prayers are not standard prayers. He touches on issues that are relevant to the people in the room,” County Administrator Karen M. St. Hilaire said. “It is never harmful to reflect and think about making better decisions.”

Prayers before legislative meetings in Lewis County have “been ongoing since I’ve been here and before,” said Teresa K. Clark, clerk of the board.

She soon will mark 34 years with the county.

Legislator Philip C. Hathway, R-Harrisville, has been leading the county’s monthly meeting with an invocation.

He took the role from Legislator Michael A. Tabolt, R-Croghan, when Mr. Tabolt was named board chairman.

While he doesn’t plan what to say in advance, his prayer doesn’t vary that much. “I usually ask for healing for the people in need and guidance in the decisions before the board,” he said.

“Occasionally,” he said, “I’ll ask for patience and understanding.”

Mr. Hathway added a moment of silence after the invocation, “for those that we’ve lost since the last meeting,” he said.

He had also instituted a moment of silence at the town of Diana board meeting when he served as town supervisor.

In regards to his personal religious beliefs, “I do believe in God, without reservation,” he said. “We’ve got ‘one nation under God’ in our pledge of allegiance,” he said. “I think there’s room for prayer before a meeting.”

He said he would depend on fellow legislators if the court says no more prayers. “If a majority of the board felt it should be excluded, we should stop. Otherwise, we’ll probably continue regardless of what the court says,” he said.

A different perspective on the matter comes from Watertown Mayor Jeffrey E. Graham.

Mr. Graham said he did away with the practice of saying prayers before City Council meetings when he took office in 1992.

“We put in a moment of silence as a compromise,” Mr. Graham said.

But Mr. Ormsby said he would not be satisfied with such a compromise, which he said would change the nature of his offering.

“I’ll never be found just praying to some generic supreme being. That’s not in the cards,” Mr. Ormsby said. “I think there are times we do offer a moment of silence, but I’m still very much supportive for offering a prayer.”

The Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision on the case in June.

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