Council to vote on resurrecting prayer at meetings

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GALLOWAY – A Township Council ad hoc committee of three has completed its study and issued a recommendation that would have council members read pre-approved prayers prior to each meeting.

Deputy Mayor Tony Coppola, the committee chairman, told the full council of the decision at its Wednesday, Jan. 2 meeting.

Solicitor Michael Fitzgerald said he would prepare a resolution to be put up for a vote at council’s next meeting, Tuesday, Jan 22.

“To say this is a sensitive and passionate issue is an understatement,” Coppola said. “This committee was faced by a great challenge.”

Difficult decisions, he said, are part of council members’ jobs.

“I believe it is our duty and role as council people to represent our constituents,” Coppola said. “We are kind of like proxy voters for the people that elected us.”

Some people don’t have the time to educate themselves on every issue, so they vote for candidates they believe share their ideology, he said.

“But we as elected officials must also be ever cognizant not to expose the municipality to any litigation or potential financial exposure,” Coppola said.

“When first considering the issue of prayer to open council meetings, we knew that the easy way out would be to institute the moment of silence as a replacement to prayer,” Coppola said. “But we as a committee thought we needed to look at other options. We wanted to find a way to incorporate an opening invocation into our agenda without proselytizing. We knew people’s faith in God helps them get through difficult times. We knew religion provides solace to people who suffer loss, and the fact is that this country was founded with firm ties to God and religion.”

“In God We Trust” is on every piece of American currency, he said. The Pledge of Allegiance includes the phrase “one nation under God.”

“So how do we balance that tightrope?” Coppola asked.  

“The committee looked closely at, and used as a basis for defensible prayer, a much-publicized case called ‘Marsh vs. Chambers,’ and the Cliff Notes version of what the ruling on this case said is that prayer is acceptable at public and legislative meetings as long as it is done in a nonsecular way,” Coppola said. “That is to say that they do not lean to one religion or another. The Marsh ruling has become the benchmark for what is acceptable prayer, and has shaped the way invocations are done at the national, state and local levels.”

The committee assembled some 35 prayers that pass the Marsh test, he said.

“Most were adopted from what the county uses and some were formed by our committee,” Coppola said. “All were forwarded to and approved by our township solicitor.”

The committee recommendation was that council pass a resolution approving the group of prayers as acceptable to be used at council meetings. The prayers would be read by a rotation of willing council members. New prayers would need approval from the township solicitor.

Coppola said the committee also recommended a moment of silence added to prayers or substituted if no council person wants to read a prayer.

All council members said they would be willing to read prayers in this format.

Serving with Coppola on the committee were Councilwoman Whitney Ullman and Councilman Jim McElwee.

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