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Little Impact Seen From Prayer Ruling

Lebanon — The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week in support of town officials’ authority to begin public meetings with prayer has different legal implications on the two sides of the Connecticut River, but is unlikely to have short -t erm effects on public meetings in either state.

The federal court’s 5-4 decision, which found that the practice of pre-meeting prayers in Greece, N.Y. did not violate the separation of church and state as defined in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, will make very little difference to Vermonters due to a previous ruling by the state’s supreme court.

In this instance, Vermont’s state constitution trumps its federal counterpart, Cheryl Hanna, vice president for external relations and professor of law at Vermont Law School said.

“This reminds us all that we are governed by two constitutions,” said Hanna. “States are always free to award their citizens more rights, but never fewer.”

The Vermont Superior Court found, in May 2012, that in having a Christian minister guide townspeople in a prayer before Town Meeting, the town of Franklin was infringing on resident Marilyn Hackett’s rights under the Vermont Constitution, which states “that no person ought to, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship.”

The state court determined that Franklin’s town meeting prayers, which called on God in the form of “the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,” were unconstitutional in Vermont.

The U.S. “Supreme Court ruling does not change or overrule the case from Franklin,” said Hanna.

Vermont towns still can’t have sectarian prayer before public meetings, she said.

Hanna said that Vermont’s “history and traditions” are aligned with U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent in the Greece, N.Y. decision, which states: “I respectfully dissent from the Court’s opinion because I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality — the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”

Barnard is one Vermont town that “never had a prayer at the beginning of the meeting,” said Town Moderator Paul Doton, a Barnard native with a quarter century of experience in the role.

Instead of prayer, Doton said, Barnard begins town meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance, which opens the annual event on a “positive note” and honors Barnard residents who have served in the armed forces.

The high court’s ruling last week in support of secular prayer before public meetings is also unlikely to alter the traditions of the region’s New Hampshire communities.

“I don’t think it’s going to change my style of running town meetings,” said Plainfield Town Moderator Paul Franklin.

Franklin has continued a tradition of beginning meetings with “words of inspiration,” which former Plainfield Moderator Steve Taylor instituted a decade ago.

“We try to do things that are positive and community-spirited,” said Franklin. “(We) keep naming of the deity out of it.”

Franklin said the purpose of taking a few minutes at the beginning of the meeting to reflect is intended to remind those gathered to be respectful and non-threatening.

As an elected official, Franklin said if community members decide they don’t like how he runs meetings, they can elect someone else to his post.

New Hampshire does not have legal precedent like Vermont’s Franklin case to trump the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision, but Calvin Massey, a professor of constitutional law at the University of New Hampshire School of Law said that the state’s constitution expresses “religious neutrality when it comes to prayer.”

He pointed to Article 6, which asserts “no subordination of any one sect, denomination or persuasion to another shall ever be established.”

Massey said the purpose of such an article is to prevent “overt religious favoritism,” which might lead to “anyone being treated as a second class citizen.”

Lyme resident Nadia Gorman’s complaint that a prayer at town meeting risked offending those with non-Christian beliefs, as well as those without religious convictions, spurred that town to abandon its traditional invocation in a 2008 town meeting vote, 76-59.

Similarly in Hanover, where town meeting will take place on Tuesday, residents should not expect to begin with a prayer, said Moderator Steve Fowler, an attorney.

Such a practice has not been a part of Hanover’s town meetings as of late, he said.

“I’m very happy that Hanover did not have that tradition for me to think about,” he said.

Fowler said he understood the way in which prayer might draw attention to the solemnity of the occasion, but added “it is so easy for that to slip into an inappropriate involvement of religion.”

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

CORRECTION

A Vermont Superior Court judged ruled in favor of a Franklin, Vt., woman in May 2012, agreeing that her town's inclusion of a Christian prayer in Town Meeting proceedings violated the state constitution. An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified which state court ruled on the case.