BRATTLEBORO -- One of Brattleboro’s longest-standing traditions might have to be stopped after a Franklin County Superior Court Judge ruled that reading a prayer at town meeting violates the Vermont Constitution.
Franklin resident Marilyn Hackett brought suit against the town last year arguing that including a Christian prayer during the annual Town Meeting violated Article Three of the Vermont Constitution.
Superior Court Judge Martin Maley this week ruled in favor of Hackett.
Now Vermont towns, like Brattleboro, that lead off their town meetings with a prayer, will be waiting to see if the decision is appealed and if the Supreme Court is willing to take up the issue.
Longtime Brattleboro Moderator Tim O’Connor points out that Brattleboro residents have been starting their annual town meeting with a prayer since 1753.
"It’s not my decision. It’s what the body wants to do," O’Connor said. "I think we’ll have to follow the decision through the appeal and see what the Vermont Supreme Court does and then Brattleboro can make a decision."
Calls to the attorney representing the town of Franklin, and to the Franklin Selectboard chairman, were not returned Friday
Appeal or not, O’Connor thinks it is appropriate to start Town Meeting with a prayer.
"Until there is a final ruling by the Supreme Court I think there is a place for it," said O’Connor. "’In
Hackett sued the town of Franklin after arguing for years that the prayer violated her Constitutional rights.
The town did not read the prayer at the 2012 town meeting while the case was being considered in the court.
Article Three of the Vermont Constitution guarantees "that no person ought to, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship," and Hackett argued that forcing her to hear the prayer during Town Meeting violated that article and the judge this week agreed.
"This is a great victory for religious liberty," said Bernie Lambek, who represented Hackett as an ACLU of Vermont cooperating attorney. "We are pleased that the Superior Court recognized that making voters attend prayer violates our state’s protections for matter of conscience."
The court issued a permanent injunction forbidding the town from having the prayer in the future, and will hold a hearing on the amount of damages to award Hackett.
Lambek said that while a superior court judge’s decision in one Vermont county does not affect other locations, judges traditionally strongly consider rulings from other courts.
"The judge said this violates the rights of Vermonters," Lambek said. "It is not likely that everyone in Brattleboro wants to participate in prayer even though they might not complain vocally. There are likely dissenters whose rights are being violated in Brattleboro and the town would be well served to discontinue the practice."
District Two Town Meeting Representative Ann Darling said the prayers at Brattleboro Town Meeting have been ecumenical, and while she has not had a problem with them, she does understand that others might have.
"Town Meeting has to be inclusive," she said. "If other people don’t like it, it makes sense to me to stop. Not everyone believes in god."
And longtime District Three Representative Donald Webster said that while he is a strong proponent of separating church and state on the federal level, he has accepted the prayer reading at Town Meeting in the name of tradition.
"If there was an issue in Brattleboro I would have no problem dropping it," he said. "It hasn’t been my crusade."
The Vermont League of Cities and Towns gave a special presentation on the hot button issue at its annual Town Meeting tune-up in February.
According to meeting notes, VLCT Staff Attorney Garrett Baxter said federal and state law was unclear and he recommended that towns not read prayers at Town Meeting.
If a motion was made form the floor to read a prayer, Baxter said a vote could be called.
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.