When I heard about the Supreme Court ruling (just barely) that it was kosher for a town board in upstate New York to open its meetings with prayer, even if that prayer was to a specific god, or son of, my mind immediately went back to another town board in upstate New York that nearly shut itself down for two years over the same issue.
I speak of the rural Northern Dutchess town of Milan, east of Rhinebeck on the way out to Pine Plains. Back in 1990, in a wave of proto-Tea Party spite against the long-seated town board, they elected Vincent Scelba, a cellist transplanted from Jersey, their town supervisor. From the get-go, it was a tough relationship as Scelba insisted on opening town board meetings with … a prayer. Unlike the board up in Greece, the Milan council refused to go along with this. The council’s refusal sparked Scelba’s refusal to stay at the meeting and, eventually, to do his job at all.
This made for an interesting two years in Milan, and an interesting entry into professional reporting for myself, just out of journalism school and writing for one of the dearly departed Taconic Newspapers papers. (Milan town board sessions marked the first, but certainly not the last, time I wondered if I would make it out of a meeting in one piece, as townsfolk often blamed the press for encouraging Scelba by writing about his antics.) The difference over prayer wasn’t the only issue Milan had with Scelba; the guy was erratic, colorful and virtually non-functional as a town supervisor. He even went into hiding at one point, as the rest of the town board wanted the sheriff’s office to drag him in cuffs to the Town Hall to make him be the chief fiscal officer of the town and sign papers only he could sign. (I heard he had taken up at a boarding house near enough to the Columbia County line that he could skedaddle to safety if the deputies ever did show up. I tried to arrange a sit-down with him there once to no avail; it reminded me of reporters trying to get meetings with shadowy warlords in remote areas.) It was an angst-ridden two years for a pretty quiet little town, partially over the board’s refusal to violate the separation of church and state.
Times have certainly changed. Now, those who want their church and state unseparated have taken up the banner of free speech, saying it violates their right to self-expression to not have their rites be a part of public business. Some see this as harmless; others are troubled by the Greece board’s selection of pretty much exclusively Christian clergy, some of whom referred to Jesus by name in their prayers. Still others, who want religion 100 percent out of their laws and governance, see this as an outrage. I am not sure what I think. I understand people of no faith resent, and perhaps justifiably so, religion playing a part in civic life, but on the other hand I don’t see a big problem with opening prayers in a country where upwards of 80 percent of the people believe in some sort of higher power — as long as the prayers are ecumenical enough that no one feels left out or that they’re about to be crusaded against. And hey, if every town board, village board, school board, county legislature and city council in New York prays simultaneously for mandate relief from Albany, maybe it might actually happen!