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In Vermont, gods don’t vote

Court rules its improper to conduct an unequivocally Christian prayer at Town Meeting

Columnist Deborah Lee Luskin serves Newfane as town moderator.

Williamsville

Newfane is the Windham County seat, and an imposing Federal-style courthouse dominates the town green.

The court faces the sheriff’s office, famous for once having had a hotel attached to the county jail with a single kitchen that served both. Just behind the courthouse and slightly to the side is the white-steepled Congregational church.

I like the way the courthouse is prominent in Newfane. As a member of a religious minority and a skeptic, I hold dear the separation of church and state and the Enlightenment philosophy that informed our nation’s founding. But I also love the way the church reminds me of the religious freedom that so many came here to practice.

Like the Pilgrims who left Europe for the New England wilderness in the 17th century, my four grandparents fled to America in the early 20th century to pursue economic and educational opportunities denied poor, European Jews.

So I see the classic white church as a monument to religious freedom, even though I make little use of the institution it houses.

It’s not just that I’m not Christian; I don’t belong to any faith-based group. What little religious observance I practice, I practice at home, in my own, unorthodox, manner. Further, I’m distrustful of the way religions have historically become intolerant of those who believe differently.

Lately, though, I’ve been going to church often — for funerals. The sanctuary is a lovely place to sit in fellowship and meditate on a neighbor’s passing, and the church ladies always put on a great spread.

I go much more gladly, however, to the Williamsville and Grange Halls, our public buildings, where I have attended any number of civic events, including Town Meeting.

Best of all, I like that there’s no question of religion inside our civic halls. Contentious as we can be at a Town Meeting, we at least tackle questions that can be decided by a vote. I don’t think any group of people could do that about a god.

Which is why I’m glad that in Vermont, gods don’t vote.

* * *

So I was hugely relieved last week when a Vermont Superior Court ruled in favor of Marilyn Hackett, who sued her town for including a religious prayer during Town Meeting.

The prayer in question wasn’t an ecumenical invocation by the town moderator, which is already pushing the limits of civil discourse. The prayer Hackett objected to was unequivocally Christian, delivered by the local Christian minister.

According to court documents, the substance of the prayer has remained largely the same for the past several years, always ending with “in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

Understand, I think this is a fine prayer — for those who believe in this particular deity and when said in the appropriate place.

But, as the court found, this prayer, when said at Town Meeting, violated Marilyn Hackett’s rights as guaranteed in chapter 1, article 3 of the Vermont State Constitution, which says that no one can be compelled to attend any religious worship.

* * *

The Constitution was written in 1786, and this same article recommends that every denomination of Christians “ought to keep up some sort of religious worship, which to them shall seem most agreeable to the revealed will of God.”

It’s just a suggestion, though.

As a historian said to me recently, the constitutions of the original 13 colonies all guaranteed freedom of religion; Vermont, the 14th state to enter the union, was the first to offer freedom from it.

And perhaps nothing could exemplify this better than the architectural organization of the Windham County seat, where it’s the courthouse that has pride of place, and the church that stands back to the side.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #155 (Wednesday, June 6, 2012).

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