ELIZABETHTOWN — One Essex County lawmaker wants to restart holding a public prayer before every Board of Supervisors meeting.
The practice was discontinued recently after County Attorney Daniel Manning III told supervisors they needed a policy to cover the prayers, which should be nondenominational in nature.
But Supervisor Ronald Moore (R-North Hudson) tried to move a motion this week to resume Christian prayer at the board’s regular monthly meetings.
His resolution was tabled so Manning could provide them with more information on how to legally go about it.
The monthly prayer had been delivered by Essex County Clerk Joseph Provoncha, a Catholic deacon.
Different religions could be invited each month, if they want a public prayer before meetings, Manning said.
“The best way to handle that is to develop a policy by which no religion is favored,” he said. “References to any sort of deity should be left out. You can have prayer, and it cannot be by one religion.”
Manning said they’d violate the U.S. Constitution’s clause regarding separation of church and state if they had only a Christian prayer at every meeting.
“You can wait until someone challenges you, but the cat’s out of the bag,” he said.
Moore said the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that opening prayers are OK at public meetings, but Manning said the 1983 high court ruling was that government meetings could begin with prayers only if they were nondenominational.
The Supreme Court this year let stand a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that Christian-only prayers held before North Carolina’s Forsyth County Commission meetings were barred as a government endorsement of a religion.
In addition, some New York state courts have ruled against public prayer at municipal meetings, Manning said.
“I think 18 people (supervisors) should make these decisions,” Moore said. “No member of this board, including the chairman, should have the right to change it without the approval of this full board.”
A first-term supervisor, Moore said he thought the county had been holding the prayers for 200 years, but Douglas told him the practice only started in the last few years.
“It’s going to be a highly disputed public controversy,” Douglas said. “Do we really want the county attorney spinning his wheels on a controversial issue?”
The prayer issue is a distraction from other crucial county work, he said, like the $10 million public safety radio project and the recovery from last year’s devastating floods.
“I support the Catholic religion. But we were doing something illegal. That’s why I stopped it.”
When Supervisor Thomas Scozzafava (R-Moriah) said they were “all Christians here,” he upset some supervisors.
“I think if there’s any group that needs prayer it’s this board,” Scozzafava joked.
Supervisor Sue Montgomery Corey (D-Minerva) said her town is populated by people of many religions.
“We have people (in Minerva) who are all manner of things,” Corey said. “The presumption we are all Christians here is not accurate and is not respectful to other religions. We should not limit it (a prayer) to the Christian faith.”
Supervisor Margaret Bartley (D-Elizabethtown) said she has never discussed her religion with other supervisors.
“This country was founded on religious freedom,” she said. “I don’t like the idea of elected officials leading a group in prayer. I pray before I come here.”
Supervisor Roby Politi (R-North Elba) moved to table Moore’s motion, and the County Finance Committee did so unanimously.
Douglas said after the meeting that he supported having the prayers.
“But we don’t have a policy. We’re using a Catholic deacon. When we have a policy in place, I’m all for it,” he said.
“My job as chairman is to make sure we’re doing things above board.”
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