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County board chaplain hails prayer ruling : News : Oswego Ledger-Sentinel : Hometown Newspaper for Oswego and Montgomery, Illinois
County board chaplain hails prayer ruling
Prochaska plans to use 'God' and/or 'Lord' in prayers to open meetings

by Matt Schury


Matt Prochaska makes a point of not mentioning any Catholic saints during his public prayer before Kendall County Board meetings.

Not because the chaplain for the County Board feels pressure to censor himself but because he says he doesn't want to confuse non-Catholic Christians.

Prochaska delivers a brief prayer before each bi-monthly County Board meeting.

The county board is believed to be the only governmental agency to open its regular meetings with a public prayer, in addition to the Pledge of Allegiance.

"I'm Catholic, and personally I have no problem mentioning saint names but some of my Protestant colleagues might wonder what the heck I'm talking about," Prochaska said.

Prochaska noted that the board is made up of five Catholics and five Protestants. Including Prochaska, John Purcell, Lynn Cullick, Jeff Wehrli and Elizabeth Flowers are Catholic, while Scott Gryder, Amy Cesich, John Shaw, Dan Koukol and Judy Gilmour are of the Protestant faith.

Despite not mentioning saints in his prayers, Prochaska will have a little more flexibility in the prayers he writes and publicly reads to open every county board meeting following a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ruling said Christian prayer is allowed before a public meeting and does not violate the Constitution.

Prochaska said that he did sprinkle in a few more religious references during the first board meeting May 6 following the decision by the high court.

"On Tuesday I threw a few more religious words into the prayer," he said.

Before the ruling Prochaska admits the he "tip toed around mentioning a supreme being" and now he directly will say "God" or "Lord" in his future prayers.

Prochaska said he doesn't think he will be more overtly religious in the prayer's content.

"When I do prayers at county board meetings I always try to have a message in there for a specific meeting or something going on in the county," he said. "And sometimes it's subtle and only the other board members know what I'm talking about --sometimes it's a little more blatant."

However, he said that he is still not sure if he would mention Jesus specifically in a prayer and would have to "mull it over." Personally he said that he tries to be as inclusive as possible in his prayers.

"I am a Catholic Christian and I do have my own personal things I like to see in prayers," Prochaska said.

He added, however, he isn't interested in turning the board room into a church.

"No candles, no incense, none of that stuff."

He added that he probably wouldn't use Latin prayers either.

"I think I would confuse most of my Catholic friends if I did that," he said.

When asked what would happen if someone of another faith wanted to say a prayer before a County Board meeting he said he would be open to it. However, he indicated that he would review it first before reading it or ask the County Board Chairman for dispensation to allow someone else to say the prayer.

The Supreme Court ruling came from a case involving Christian prayers that had been said before a local board meeting in Greece, NY. Two residents there said the prayers violated the First Amendment's right to religious freedom. Their lawyer had asked the court to require the town to use prayers that did not specifically endorse Christian beliefs or include direct references to Jesus Christ.

The five justices in the majority agreed that the prayers bring the town together and can therefore include religious references not just "non-sectarian" references as had been previously ruled by the court.

The ruling specifically said, "The town of Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents. The judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is reversed."

The decision came on a 5-4 split vote with Justices Anthony Kennedy, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. in the majority. The four dissenting Justices included: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan and Justice Sonia Sotomayor,

In the majority opinion Justice Kennedy wrote: "Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs. The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion."

Justice Breyer wrote in the dissenting opinion that the fact that the prayers were all Christian was of significance.

"That significance would have been the same had all the prayers been Jewish, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or of any other denomination. The significance is that, in a context where religious minorities exist and where more could easily have been done to include their participation, the town chose to do nothing.

"I conclude, like Justice Kagan, that the town of Greece failed to make reasonable efforts to include prayer givers of minority faiths, with the result that, although it is a community of several faiths, its prayer givers were almost exclusively persons of a single faith. Under these circumstances, I would affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals that Greece's prayer practice violated the Establishment Clause."

In her dissenting opinion Justice Kagan asked why town meetings are different then any other proceedings.

Justice Kagan wrote, "when a person goes to court, a polling place, or an immigration proceeding ... to a zoning agency, a parole board hearing, or the DMV-government officials do not engage in sectarian worship, nor do they ask her to do likewise. They all participate in the business of government not as Christians, Jews, Muslims (and more), but only as Americans-none of them different from any other for that civic purpose. Why not, then, at a town meeting?"

As for Prochaska, he says he saw the ruling as a victory for freedom of speech and freedom of religion. He explains that the ruling supports freedom of religion because it is not limiting people's ability to express their religion.

"This country was largely founded on Judeo-Christian doctrine and through our heritage and over the years separation of church and state have been very common place," he said. "You see it all the time-should 'under God' be in the pledge (of Allegiance, should 'In God We Trust' be on our money? This doesn't mandate a religion but it allows all religions to actually be publicly acknowledged by the government as existing instead of just secular humanism."

He mentioned that he wasn't surprised the way the ruling went given the make up of the court

Prochaska listened to the oral argument and new it would be a close ruling.

"On this current Supreme Court we all know who the five more conservative and who the four more liberal justices are," he said, adding that he doesn't think this is the end of the debate about separation of church and state.

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