Atheist group demands Maryland city stop opening meetings with Christian prayer


A leading atheist organization is demanding that a city in Maryland stop allowing city officials to open council meetings with a prayer, which it says is most often a Christian prayer that closes with the words "in Jesus' name." 

The American Humanist Association sent the letter on Wednesday to Aberdeen officials, namely Mayor Patrick McGrady and city council members, condemning the regular prayers. 

AHA Legal Director Monica Miller wrote in the letter that the council members open meetings with prayers that are Christian in nature, often ending in the phrase “in Jesus’ name.”

“This practice flagrantly violates binding precedent,” said Miller. “Fourth Circuit precedent has long prohibited local governments from opening public meetings with sectarian Christian prayers.”

“This letter serves as an official notice of the unconstitutional activity and a formal demand to terminate this and any similar illegal activity immediately.”

Miller argued that while the United States Supreme Court had ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway that Christian prayers were allowed at public meetings, this only applied to prayers “when they are delivered by private citizens pursuant to a neutral and non-discriminatory open forum policy that allows anyone to deliver an invocation of their choosing.”

Miller requested a response from the city officials within two weeks, threatening them with potential legal action if they refused to discontinue their prayer practice.

In June 2018, the Supreme Court sent mixed signals regarding whether it was constitutional for local officials to open meetings with Christian prayers when it declined to hear two cases.

The first, Bormuth v. County of Jackson, Michigan, involved the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upholding a similar invocation policy for the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.

“The board's invocation practice is facially neutral regarding religion. On a rotating basis, each elected Jackson County commissioner, regardless of his religion (or lack thereof), is afforded an opportunity to open a session with a short invocation based on the dictates of his own conscience,” ruled the full appeals court in 2017.

“Neither other commissioners, nor the as a whole, review or approve the content of the invocations. There is no evidence that the board adopted this practice with any discriminatory intent.”

Since the high court refused to hear an appeal in the case, the decision allowing for the officials to give sectarian prayers was allowed to stand.

However, in the same list from 2018, the Supreme Court also refused to hear an appeal in the case of Rowan County, North Carolina v. Lund, in which the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled against an invocation policy due to the prayers being almost exclusively Christian.

"We conclude that the Constitution does not allow what happened in Rowan County. The prayer practice served to identify the government with Christianity and risked conveying to citizens of minority faiths a message of exclusion," read the majority opinion, issued in 2017.

"Rowan County elevated one religion above all others and aligned itself with that faith. It need not be so. As the history of legislative invocations demonstrates, the desire of this good county for prayer at the opening of its public sessions can be realized in many ways that further both religious exercise and religious tolerance." 

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