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Riverhead Town Board debates keeping invocations to open meetings

The Riverhead Town Board is debating a policy

The Riverhead Town Board is debating a policy on opening meetings with a prayer. March 22, 2011. Credit: Newsday / Erin Geismar

To pray or not to pray.

Incoming Riverhead Town Board members are debating the practice of starting town board meetings with a prayer.

Board members are to vote at their regular meeting Tuesday on whether to adopt a written policy continuing the practice of opening town board meetings with invocations, which became a regular practice under Town Supervisor Sean Walter.

The board first voted 5-0 on March 18, 2015, to adopt a policy allowing the invocations.

However, Walter said Friday, Supervisor-elect Laura Jens-Smith, who defeated him in the November election, recently told him she was not in favor of continuing the prayers to open meetings. Her decision made him “really, really upset,” Walter said.

“It breaks my heart that the incoming town board doesn’t want to continue it,” Walter said.

He said the invocation policy was consistent with past U.S. Supreme Court rulings on opening town meetings with prayers, including the 2014 Town of Greece v. Galloway case, where the court ruled that upstate Greece officials could allow volunteer chaplains to lead prayer sessions to open town board meetings.

Riverhead’s invocation policy states it is nondenominational and open to participation by all faiths. In the past, the board has extended invitations to several different local faith groups to lead the prayers, Walter said.

“I don’t think that it’s something that is necessary prior to every single board meeting,” Jens-Smith said Friday. “I think there should be a separation between church and state, and I don’t know if everyone in the audience is comfortable with standing for a prayer before attending a government meeting.”

Most of the current board members said they supported starting meetings with the invocations.

“To me, it’s benign,” said Town Councilman Jim Wooten, who requested the resolution in part as a way to have the board decide the issue. “We’re not pushing any particular faith. . . . I don’t think it’s disrespectful to take a moment to have an invocation.”

Councilman Tim Hubbard cited the court rulings, adding the invocations “tend to temper the mood of a meeting, so in that respect, I think they make sense.” Councilwoman Jodi Giglio called the invocations “a very civil way to start the meetings.”

Jens-Smith said she will wait to see if the resolution passes, and if it does, she would continue to discuss the matter with the board after she is sworn into office.

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