All eyes focused on the Rev. Joseph Tolton as he stood at the head of the City Council chamber and took over the microphone on a recent Wednesday just before the council passed a series of bills beefing up oversight of city construction.
"We pray God that wisdom will guide these women and men as they convene to legislate what will optimize the resources of this great city," said Tolton. "We pray God that mercy will guide these women and men as they convene to legislative in the interest of creating laws that are just and equitable."
After another two minutes of similar pleas, the reverend said: "And those who agree, say 'Amen.'"
Mere moments later that response reverberated across the chamber; It appeared that most members answered in the affirmative. Councilmember Vincent Ignizio made the sign of the cross as he took his seat.
Tolton was leading the City Council in a routine tradition: the invocation or prayer that precedes every official meeting of the body. Similar to the rituals of Congress and many other legislative bodies across the nation, stated meetings of the New York City Council open with a prayer, usually presented by a different religious leader every meeting.
Recently, an overwhelming percentage of those leaders have been of Jewish or Christian faith.
Rarely questioned, the invocation is just one example of how non-secular influences can trickle into the City Council’s policies, procedures and rituals. Some say this particular practice should be banned, while others argue it inspires members to respect one another, but without offering an endorsement of any particular denomination.
Separation or Not?
From Washington to Albany to City Hall, interpreting the separation of church and state can be tricky. Should the city fund faith-based groups? Should the council have an opening prayer before its meeting?
All of this has sparked a fluctuating debate across the city.
It’s really all about interpretation â€“- one that can be extremely ambiguous and ambivalent no matter how many decades it’s discussed, according to Douglas Muzzio, professor in the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College.
Even after the country adopted the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (the foundation of the separation of church and state which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion”), our early political leaders continued to OK state sanctioned religion. At one point, Muzzio said, there were religious qualifications for office.
Obviously, these policies were discarded long ago. But, Muzzio added, the council’s funding of religious groups and its own invocation prior to meetings can fall in this tricky category.
For the most part, the city has accepted certain restrictions to deal with this. A Supreme Court decision from 1983 affirmed the right for legislative bodies to host prayers before they conduct business, but more recent court opinions require these prayers be non-sectarian. The use of Jesus, under a recent decision, would violate the First Amendment.
To address this, pastors who have performed invocations at the council said they are urged to be general and to refrain from specific religious references.
Elsewhere, the city has established guidelines for the funding of non-secular groups. Funding cannot go to any missionary or conversion work but only community-based services.
Even with these guidelines, sensitivity remains.
A Legislative Prayer
According to a City Council spokesperson, the council has not received any complaints on its invocation practice. They offer all council members an opportunity to bring in a religious leader from their districts, and members do not have to wait longer than a month to get their pastor, rabbi or imam on the list.
Despite offering the opportunity, for the most part invocations are done by those of monotheistic faiths, specifically Christian or Jewish leaders. Though it is the city's third most popular religion, Islamic leaders have not been seen conducting an invocation at City Hall in more than a year.
Hindu or Buddhist leaders are rarely seen, if ever, at the front of the council chamber.
Because all religions may not be represented, Alex Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said those left out could feel disenfranchised. His group argues for banning invocations nationwide.
“When you have a government body opening its meetings with a prayer that sends a message to the members of the community that the government endorses religion,” said Luchenitser. “It sends a message to members of the community that don't believe in God that they are second class citizens.”
While Luchenitser sees it as divisive, some city religious and political leaders see it as “unifying and comforting.”
“People should not fear a few moments of reflection,” Councilmember Jimmy Oddo, who is a product of 18 years of Catholic school, said. “If they are so put off by it, they can excuse themselves and take a walk around the building.”
At least one member, Councilmember Simcha Felder, who is an Orthodox Jew, attempted to ban the invocation under a previous speaker, but was unsuccessful. He called it “very dangerous” and said he would still support doing away with the ritual.
“It doesn’t belong there,” Felder said. “I don’t see the purpose.”
In response to Felder, Shirley Limongi of the New York City Council press office released this statement: "Invocations are a longstanding tradition in legislative bodies across the country, just as they are for our colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senate, the State Senate, and Assembly legislatures."
Religious leaders don’t see the invocation as sanctioning any religion.
“I very much value the constitutional safeguard for the separation of church and state. I also recognize it was intended to protect the individual from the imposition of religion by the state,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, the vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “The offering of an invocation in no way offends that standard, because it’s not saying that the state is speaking religiously for any individual.”
Offering general comments and thoughts, like Potasnik did earlier this year at the City Council, causes no harm, he said.
General comments aside, some religious leaders do think it’s important to ensure all religions are represented during the ceremonies.
“If you are going to take the initiative to invite a clergy to come or a minister to come and do the invocation, let's be diligent enough that over the course of four years make sure as many religions are incorporated,” said the Rev. Mitchell Taylor of the Center of Hope International. Taylor has performed several invocations at the council, including one earlier this year.
Funding Religious Groups
The invocation is not the only City Council practice that brings the body closer to endorsing religion.
More recently, the council’s funding of nonprofit groups with religious affiliations for community programming has raised questions. Most council members say they see nothing wrong with doling out funds to groups or private schools that are affiliated with some faith. They argue these groups do good work.
Oddo, for instance, has funded private Catholic elementary schools, the Jewish Community Council, Young Israel and the Council of Jewish Organizations â€“ just to name a few.
“Lots of people from various communities, atheists too, have been served by these groups,” Oddo said.
One group was experiencing difficultly receiving their funding for a new treatment facility after the city raised questions about Alcoholics Anonymous meetings that independently took place there. The meetings called the group's religious affiliation into question.
The Law Department says every agency vets each appropriation to a private organization to make sure the funding does not violate the constitution’s Establishment Clause. Â