Without a prayer: Vt. town meetings set to drop tradition
By Kevin O’Connor
STAFF WRITER | February 24,2013
St. Albans Messenger Photo
Marilyn Hackett sits with counsel during her successful contention that prayers at town meetings are unconstitutional.
After years contending that prayers at town meetings are unconstitutional, Marilyn Hackett received a judge’s confirmation last spring and a $5,000 check for compensatory damages this winter.
So why is the Vermonter worried about what she’ll hear when her community gathers again next month?
The small, northwestern town of Franklin, population 1,405, appears to lack much news on its March 5 meeting agenda, save a proposed $110,000 sand shed. But the Canadian-border community has sparked headlines for nearly a decade as Hackett argued that its opening prayer violated the state constitution’s protection against forced participation in religious worship.
A county court judge agreed with her last May. The town, choosing not to appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court, settled the dispute with a check from its insurer this January — a sum she donated to the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which provided her lawyer free of charge.
End of story? Not for Hackett, who’s still taunted by critics in the mail and on the street.
“I’m a little afraid I’m going to go to town meeting and there’s going to be anger,” she says. “People are ruing the loss of a tradition. The feeling appears to be there’s no good reason why I or anyone else couldn’t just leave for five minutes. The majority of people still don’t get the constitution.”
(Specifically Article 3, which states, in part, “no person ought to, or of right can be compelled to attend any religious worship.”)
Vermont reports the country’s lowest church attendance — 23 percent of residents worship regularly, according to Gallup pollsters, compared with 42 percent nationwide. But in Franklin, the newly released annual report notes the court ruling came “to the disappointment of the Select Board,” and Hackett still receives citizen comments like “God bless you.”
“What they really mean is, ‘God damn you,’” says Hackett, an aide at Richford Junior-Senior High School. “After all the years I’ve spent trying to educate and compromise with the town, you’d think someone might come out with some understanding that, in a democracy, you can’t impose your religion on someone else.”
At least a dozen other meetings throughout the state have offered similar prayers, the Vermont League of Cities and Towns reports. Hackett’s ruling covers only Franklin County. But league lawyers are advising all communities to abide by the decision, noting in a newsletter that “opinions of sister courts (those with the same adjudicatory authority but different jurisdictions) are given persuasive weight.”
Franklin’s agenda this year doesn’t include a prayer, but Hackett, who has lived in the community for nearly two decades, fears residents will try to skirt the ruling.
She recalls a past suggestion simply to change the order of proceedings — from gavel/prayer to prayer/gavel — and has heard talk of a gathering beforehand at the meeting site, the Franklin Central School, for some sort of invocation.
“I can tell you I’m still uneasy,” she says. “I’ve had too many years of feeling like Charlie Brown facing Lucy with the football. I hope they understand the spirit of the ruling should not be violated.”
(Town officials didn’t reply to a request for comment.)
Hackett stresses she’s not against prayer — just being subjected to one “in a public governmental space, especially one where citizens go to vote.” She notes there’s a church within walking distance of the town meeting space.
“If people truly feel a need to pray to sanctify the day, they don’t have to do it on government property that all of us pay for,” she says. “My mother’s line comes down from Ethan Allen, but I’m considered an outsider because I think differently. I know my firebrand ancestor wouldn’t be keen at being preached or prayed at. I don’t think he would have sat still either.”