ATLANTA A federal appeals court yesterday upheld a suburban Atlanta county's practice of allowing clergy to open meetings with Christian prayers, saying the federal judiciary should not wade into the practice of editing prayer.
The three-judge panel's 2-1 decision rejected a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union that sought to ban Cobb County officials from starting county commission meetings with invocational prayers from invited clergy.
County officials said clergy from all faiths are allowed to deliver the prayers, but ACLU lawyers contended the invocations are "overtly Christian prayers" that send a message that the religion is sponsored by the county.
The ruling, written by 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Bill Pryor, concluded that courts should avoid parsing the content of prayers as long as they're not used to advance a particular religion or disparage another faith.
"Whether invocations of 'Lord of Lords' or 'the God of Abraham, Issac, and Mohammed' are 'sectarian' is best left to theologians, not courts of law," read the 42-page opinion in Pelphrey v. Cobb County.
In a dissent, U.S. District Judge Donald Middelbrooks said he, too, was uneasy at the prospect of the judiciary editing prayer. But he said allowing county commissions to sponsor prayer presents a "similar, although less direct, danger."
"When state sponsored prayer is a perfunctory and sterile exercise marking the beginning of a commission agenda, religion becomes the casualty," he wrote.
In his 20-page opinion, he suggested drawing the line at invocations of Congress and state legislatures.
The case is the latest flashpoint in debate over just how thick the line dividing church and state should be.
During oral arguments in August, ACLU attorney Daniel Mach suggested the county could send letters to clergy urging them not to invoke religious messages, just as it already urges them not to disparage other religions.
Cobb County attorney David Walbert warned that tinkering with the requirements could make it a "virtual impossibility" for clergy to come up with something meaningful.
The argument stems from a 2005 lawsuit filed by the ACLU filed on behalf of seven residents.
The group didn't contest the right to pray, but challenged the "sectarian" contents of some of the prayers, noting that 70% of them were Christian in nature. And it criticized the way officials picked clergy, partly by thumbing through phone books.
U.S. District Judge Richard Story ruled in July 2007 that the method used to pick the clergy was flawed, but he did not rule that the prayers should be stopped. Instead, he ordered the county to award $1 each to the seven residents who sued.