- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Arkansas newspapers:

Texarkana Gazette, May 6, 2014

Sound decision

It was just three years ago that the Bowie County Commissioners Court was in the news regarding the practice of opening their meetings with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.


A group calling itself the Freedom From Religion Foundation challenged the practice. The group argue that nonsectarian prayers before government meetings were coercive and unconstitutional.

Bowie County is not the first target of the group and others like it. But it may have been one of the last.

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in the case of Marsh vs. Chambers. A Nebraska state senator had filed a lawsuit arguing that state’s practice of opening legislative sessions with a prayer violated the First Amendment’s Establishment cause. He won a partial victory in district court when the judge ruled having a chaplain paid by the state was unconstitutional. He won again on appeal, when the 8th Circuit said both the prayer and the chaplain were unconstitutional.

The case went to the nation's highest court, where by a 6-3 decision the justices ruled the prayer was indeed constitutional.

“This unique history leads us to accept the interpretation of the First Amendment draftsmen who saw no real threat to the Establishment Clause arising from a practice of prayer similar to that now challenged,” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote for the majority.

He went on to say asking for “divine guidance” did not establish a religion, but simply acknowledged “beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”

A year later, in a case involving Christmas decorations on public property_the court advanced the “endorsement test” for cases where government and religion intersect. The question becomes, in Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s words,” . whether the government intends to convey a message of endorsement or disapproval of religion.”

And in the case of prayers before public meetings_such as in Bowie county_the justices have answered.

Greece, N.Y., a city of 100,000 outside of Rochester, has for a number of years opened official meetings with a prayer from a member of the community. The majority of those prayers have been Christian_which reflects the makeup of the population. But there have also been prayers offered by other religious representatives, including a Wiccan priestess.

But in 2007 two community members objected to the prayers_they deemed them to be too heavily weighted on the Christian side and not “inclusive” enough. They also said residents were “forced” to listen to the prayers as a price for participating in the meetings. So they filed suit.

They lost in district court in 2010 but won at the appellate level two years later. The city appealed to the Supreme Court.

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