Chanukah is just a few weeks away and soon giant menorahs will begin popping up next to giant Christmas trees at municipal buildings and town squares across the country. And even though menorahs go up at the White House and other national landmarks, each year one town, at least, usually questions the placement of the Chanukah symbol in the context of separation of church and state. The debate is usually settled after threats of lawsuits result in the erection of the menorahs.
That’s the future. Right now, the debate over God’s place in municipalities is taking place in South Jersey, where the ACLU has filed a lawsuit against Point Pleasant Beach because of the recitation of what is called the Lord’s Prayer at town meetings.
The civil liberties organization dropped its first lawsuit against the borough last month after officials ended a practice of beginning meetings with the Lord’s Prayer. The borough then moved to allow council members to recite individual prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, on a rotating basis.
We heartily agree with the ACLU’s first position against the borough council’s reciting the Lord’s Prayer at meetings. While the memory of being forced to recite the Lord’s Prayer in grade school still rings in the minds of many in our community, we have to side with the council in its resolution. If it is included as part of a rotation of prayers from multiple faiths, then we have to stand by the rights of others to express their religions.
The New Jersey Supreme Court will decide whether any prayer at all can be included at a municipal meeting. But if the council is determined to include prayer, then let it come from a variety of sources.
The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. The caveat, of course, is that if the obligation to lead the opening prayer falls upon someone who has no religious prayer to offer, then that must be respected as well.
Whether in Point Pleasant Beach’s council meetings or the steps of Closter’s city hall, we should stand for the protection of practitioners of all religions or none to be fairly represented.