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Split views on prayers at Rockland town meeting

This spring’s Town Meeting in Rockland opened as it always does: with a religious invocation.

The Rev. James Hickey of Holy Family Parish told participants that Town Meeting is one of the “great gifts” of open democracy, and he thanked God for it. He mentioned Jesus Christ twice and closed his invocation “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

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Earlier that day, the US Supreme Court had upheld Hickey’s right to say a sectarian prayer before a government meeting. The 5-4 ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway on May 5 determined that prayer in public meetings is acceptable so long as the speaker does not condemn other faiths.

For Paul Cusick, who was town moderator in Rockland for nearly four decades before retiring this spring, the invocation is important because it’s long been a part of the annual assembly.

“It’s been a tradition for years in Rockland. Hopefully, it’ll continue,” he said. “People like it, I think. We only had one person complain about it while I was moderator. Over 37 years, that’s not bad.”

Town Manager Melissa Arrighi of Plymouth said the town moderator there also arranges an invocation for both the fall and spring sessions.

“It’s part of the formal procedures that take place, the pomp and circumstance before we get into the legal procedures of the day,” she said.

Area communities are largely split on the issue of prayer before the annual meetings, where residents vote on the next fiscal year’s budget, zoning changes, capital improvement projects, and other measures. A Globe survey of 17 towns found nine — Abington, Carver, Cohasset, Halifax, Hanover, Hanson, Pembroke, Scituate, and Stoughton — did not host any kind of religious invocation at Town Meeting, while the other eight — Canton, Hingham, Marshfield, Milton, Norwell, Plymouth, Rockland, and Whitman — included one as part of the proceedings.

Many of the towns that don’t include an invocation are also continuing a tradition. Carver’s Town Meeting minutes indicate there hasn’t been an invocation there since it was incorporated in 1790, according to Town Clerk Lynn Doyle.

In other towns, such as Cohasset and Hanover, not having a religious reference reflects a recent decision.

When Doug Thomson became town moderator in Hanover in 2006, he kept many of the traditions of his predecessor, including a religious invocation. He always asked the Rev. Don Remick, who was the Fire Department’s chaplain as well as pastor of the First Congregational Church of Hanover, to speak. He said when Remick moved to the North Shore, it was an opportunity to rethink the tradition. Thomson e-mailed the Massachusetts Moderators Association and found the group was split on the question of an invocation.

“Whenever you leave a tradition as town moderator, you think about it,” Thomson said. “Why is there an invocation? Because 200 years ago, everyone [had] the same religion in the town, and they were very pious, and they felt it added a solemnity to their meetings.

“You come to 2010, and you have at least 10 different religions in town. It’s a different time. Hanover is hardly the most diverse town, but there is diversity, and a religious invocation doesn’t seem like it’s additive, it’s divisive.”

According to their town moderators and town clerks, the communities that have an invocation are careful to vary the clergy and denomination to make the ceremony more inclusive.

“What I’d usually do is get a different minister every year. We may have a Catholic priest one year, and the next year, we might have a rabbi,” Rockland’s Cusick said. “I’ve never been refused; even the smallest congregation in the town has always come down. And they do it very nicely.”

But for Thomson, the most inclusive option is getting rid of the invocation entirely.

“In Hanover, I think we’ve made the right decision,’’ he said. From his perspective, it’s not about the Supreme Court’s decision on whether it can be done, he said, “but rather, whether it should be done. Inclusion is central to my whole idea about Town Meeting. If it’s going to survive into the modern era, we need it to be accessible.”

The Rev. Rodney Copp, pastor of St. Gerard Majella Parish in Canton, who gave the invocation at Town Meeting this spring, said he tailors his material to a wider audience, avoiding some of the language he might use in church.

“I generally address the prayer to God, but I don’t get into Trinitarian theology,” he said. “I think that’s respectful of the various religions in the community.”

He added that no one at Town Meeting is required to pray with him.

“They can have a moment of reverential silence if they like, or they can absent themselves if they need to,” he said. “I know we have two Catholic parishes, numerous Protestant churches, and two synagogues in Canton, and that the town rotates who delivers the invocation each year. The establishment clause didn’t say that we need to take religion out of the public sphere, just that we shouldn’t make one religion the official religion of the government, and we certainly don’t do that in Canton.”

The case recently decided by the Supreme Court stems from a lawsuit involving Greece, N.Y., where public meetings began with a prayer from the “chaplain of the month.” The monthly role was open to all faiths, but because the upstate New York town is predominantly Christian, the invocations were as well. Two residents sued, citing the separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment, and saying that public prayer should remain generic, without references to religious beliefs that endorse a particular denomination.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated: “Government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech.” He also noted that these invocations are meant to “lend gravity to the occasion, and reflect values long part of the nation’s heritage.”

Cara Bayles can be reached at carabayles@gmail.com.
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