A member of the Suffolk County Legislature has proposed a rules change that would place unconstitutional limits on prayers at public meetings.
Like many other government entities, the Suffolk County Legislature opens its meetings with prayer. Within the past year, two prayers offered by Roman Catholic priests at meetings of the Suffolk County Legislature included prayers for the unborn. According to The Southhampton Press, one of the priests prayed that the members of the legislature would “‘be outstanding in their respect for life at all its stages, including pre-born life,’” while the other prayed that “‘those waiting to be born’” would be “‘welcomed and protected.’”
Suffolk County Legislator Bridget Fleming (D-Southampton) reportedly viewed the two prayers as “a clear violation of the First Amendment.” In response, County Legislator Fleming has proposed to regulate the content of invocations (or prayers) offered at meetings of the County Legislature. The proposed rule states that the invocation “shall be conducted in a manner consistent with the United States Constitution, shall maintain neutrality regarding personal beliefs unrelated to the body’s legislative function and shall not reflect or advance one particular religious perspective, nor coerce or compel any particular religious doctrine.” To date, the proposed rule offered by County Legislator Fleming has not received a floor vote, and Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights has written an open letter laying out his strenuous objections to the proposal.
County Legislator Fleming has it backwards. Mentioning the unborn in a prayer at a public meeting does not violate the First Amendment. On the other hand, an attempt by government to regulate the content of prayers offered at public meetings would violate the First Amendment. County Legislator Fleming’s language about maintaining neutrality and “not reflect[ing] or advanc[ing] one particular religious perspective” is unconstitutional. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. 565 (2014), the Supreme Court of the United States reasoned as follows: “To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech… Our Government is prohibited from prescribing prayers to be recited in our public institutions in order to promote a preferred system of belief or code of moral behavior… It would be but a few steps removed from that prohibition for legislatures to require chaplains to redact the religious content from their message in order to make it acceptable for the public sphere. Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy.”
It is not the government’s job to sanitize public expressions of religious faith to protect the ears of easily-offended secularists. County Legislator Fleming is an experienced attorney. She should know better.