CONTACT: Meredith Curtis, ACLU of Maryland, 410-889-8555; email@example.com
HURLOCK, MD - At the request of a Hurlock-based community group, Ministers and Citizens for Change and Growth (MCCG), the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland (ACLU) is advising Town officials that their practice of convening public meetings with overtly Christian prayers raises constitutional concerns. In a May 31 letter to the Town, the ACLU recommends that the Town either halt the practice altogether, institute a moment of reflection, or ensure that prayers are nonsectarian.
"One of the most basic rights guaranteed to all Americans is a government that does not choose sides on matters of religion," said Debbie Jeon, Legal Director for the ACLU of Maryland. "As our communities become more diverse, government-sponsored prayer favoring one faith over others can be needlessly divisive, sending a message of intolerance and exclusion."
According to complaints the ACLU has received, Hurlock legislative prayers are explicitly sectarian and favor only one religion, Christianity. However, the residents of Hurlock are increasingly diverse, some holding Muslim and Buddhist faiths, as well as including non-believers. While the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of prayer before legislative bodies, such prayer must not be "exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief."
Under the First Amendment, governments are to remain neutral and are prohibited from encouraging or promoting religion. The Supreme Court has held that "the clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another." The Court has also emphasized that government entities should not "demonstrate a preference for one particular sect or creed (including a preference for Christianity over other religions)."
"We believe Hurlock needs to be inclusive, equitable, and respectful of our diverse community," said Monroe Quailes, Vice President of Ministers and Citizens for Change. "Our goal is to send a message to leaders in Hurlock as well as the surrounding counties about the importance of being fair to everyone."