Battle Over Prayer at Plainfield, New Jersey Council Meetings


By Rob Boston

I am always amazed at people who believe that coerced religious worship could be of any value.

Why would a seriously devout person take part in such prayer? More to the point, what sort of deity would be pleased by it?

Nevertheless, such prayers prosper across the nation. Even worse, they are often used as a political weapon.

Consider the situation unfolding in Plainfield, N.J. Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs has attacked a member of the city council, Rebecca Williams, because Williams allegedly “grunts” during meetings, won’t salute the American flag and doesn’t participate in pre-meeting prayers.

Robinson-Briggs claims that some local veterans are offended by Williams’ behavior. Williams responds that she shows respect by standing during the pledge but doesn’t salute the flag because it’s against her religious beliefs. She also said she stands during the prayer but doesn’t take part, again for theological reasons.

Williams rightly points out that government-sponsored prayer is constitutionally problematic.

“There are many municipal councils that don’t pledge or pray before a meeting,” Williams told the Newark Star-Ledger. “I don’t see why it’s necessary. There have been residents who have come to the council to say it’s rather superfluous.”

Superfluous is one way of putting it. It might also be unconstitutional, depending on the type of prayer being recited. Remember, Americans United and the American Civil Liberties Union recently put a stop to official pre-meeting prayers in Forsyth County, N.C. Those prayers were almost always Christian, and a federal court held that their use by government violates the separation of church and state.

When I first read about this situation, I wanted to advise Mayor Robinson-Briggs to grow up. (She’s seriously complaining about someone grunting during meetings?) But it’s obvious when you read the entire story that the pledge and prayer issues are just a small part of a larger political feud between these two.

That makes it even worse. Robinson-Briggs, who is depicted in a Star-Ledger photo wearing a cross around her neck, apparently isn’t reluctant to use the religion she claims to treasure to smear a political opponent.

The mayor needs to keep a couple of things in mind. First of all, no American can be compelled to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. This isn’t something new. The Supreme Court made that clear back in 1943 in West Virginia v. Barnette.

Nor can anyone be compelled to take part in prayers during a public meeting. In fact, the use of such prayers, when sponsored by government, is legally suspect.

I’ve always been suspicious of “holier than thou” politicians who are so eager to wear their religion on their sleeves. I’m even more suspicious of them when that they take that same faith and use it as a club to bash political opponents. People who truly value faith don’t do that.

Perhaps the answer in Plainfield is to get rid of government-sponsored prayers. Not only would that be in keeping with the Constitution, it would also end the misuse and abuse of religion by politicians with points to score.


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