Last week, the Crook County Court unanimously approved the inclusion of an opening prayer at the beginning of its future meetings.
Starting with the March 15 meeting next week, local clergy will be given the opportunity to offer a prayer after the Pledge of Allegiance. Leaders from all denominations will be invited to participate.
"Something has been missing from the court meetings beyond conducting the business of the county," said Crook County Judge Seth Crawford. "We have the opportunity to help strengthen our community by bringing people together."
Crawford stressed that the new practice will be as inclusive as possible, and the county is working with a local pastor to reach out to as many local members of the clergy as possible.
"I think as we hear from pastors and leaders of different denominations and faiths, their words and prayers will help demonstrate that we are united despite our differences," he said. "By offering the opportunity to lead us in prayer to leaders of all faiths, we will increase understanding, tolerance and acceptance."
Crawford is unaware of any previous efforts by Crook County government to open meetings with a benediction, although this court will not be pioneering the practice in Oregon.
"I was talking with a commissioner from Jefferson County, and they were saying that they did it," he recalls. "I thought that was really interesting."
Consequently, Crawford engaged Crook County Counsel to research opening prayers further and determine if adding them would violate the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause, which governs the separation of church and state.
What Assistant County Counsel Eric Blaine learned was that opening benedictions have been a source of controversy for the past few decades. He explained that the Establishment Clause was once examined under what was known as the Lemon Test, which originated in the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman case.
"However, about 30 years ago, the (U.S.) Supreme Court enacted a decision called Marsh v. Chambers, which began a process of a series of apparently conflicting interpretations of the Establishment Clause," he said. "For the last 30 years, how exactly courts are supposed to examine allegations of an interference by government in religious matters has been subject of a great deal of debate."
Then in 2014, a U.S. Supreme Court decision on another case, Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, seemingly opened the door for Crook County and other communities to offer benedictions at government meetings.
"For many years, the town of Greece had had a policy of inviting local clergy to give a benediction in front of city council meetings," Blaine explained. "It was challenged under the Establishment Clause and the (U.S.) Second Circuit Court (of Appeals) said that the city's policy was a violation of the Establishment Clause. But the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, reversed that."
Blaine said the Supreme Court judges based their decision on two primary factors.
"They looked at the long history of legislative bodies, going back to the enactment of the First Amendment, having prayers before convening in meetings," he said. "They said if this really was a problem, why is it that the people who drafted and promoted the First Amendment were the ones who were conducting it?"
The Supreme Court justices also noted that the prayer invitations were extended to any local clergy member who asked to be part of it. The town leaders also did not provide any parameters to the clergy regarding what they could include in their prayers.
Whether the law will change at some point is difficult to know. Blaine points out that the latest Supreme Court decision was a contentious one and that for the past several years it has been very debatable what particular test the Supreme Court will use in any given circumstance when examining what the Establishment Clause prohibits or allows.
"So the best we can say is it's the state of law at the moment and if it ends up changing, then, of course, there are a lot of jurisdictions that will have to re-examine what they are doing and whether they are complying with the Constitution."
But so far, the addition of an opening prayer seems to have local support. Crawford said the discussion and vote last week was very positive, and the people in the audience appeared to like the decision made as well. He hopes that the new practice will not only bring people together, but encourage more residents to attend county court meetings.
"We are really excited," he said.