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Riverhead will continue to open town board meetings with prayer

The Rev. Enrique Lebron, pastor at Riverhead United Methodist Church and chairman of the Riverhead Clergy Council, offers the invocation at the town board meeting on Jan. 18, 2017. File photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead Town Board meetings will continue to open up with a prayer.

Board members today voted unanimously to continue a policy of inviting leaders of local religious assemblies to offer an invocation at the start of each regular semi-monthly meeting.

The practice began in July 2010 at the request of Supervisor Sean Walter. It’s an unusual custom for a local legislative body on Long Island and Walter’s suggestion in 2010 was not without its critics.

But Walter persisted and every regular meeting of the town board since the Rev. Mary Cooper of House of Praise gave the first invocation that July has opened with prayer.

The town board in 2015 adopted a formal policy regarding the invocations, to establish guidelines in keeping with recent case law. The adopted policy placed responsibility for arranging the invocations with the town supervisor. Last week, Walter asked the board to adopt a revised policy changing the responsible entity to the town board. He said he thought that was more appropriate.

But Walter’s successor, Supervisor-elect Laura Jens-Smith, is not enthusiastic about the invocation.

“If someone asks to pray before a meeting, that’s all right with me, but I’m not in favor of establishing it as a regular policy and requiring it before every meeting,” she said last Thursday after the town board work session.

Councilwoman-elect Catherine Kent said she holds a similar view.

Councilman Tim Hubbard last week said he thought the decision should be left to the incoming board. Walter disagreed.

“I feel very strongly that the invocation should stay,” Walter said in an interview last week. “If they want to take an affirmative act against bringing God into the town board, then so be it.”

Hubbard voted today to adopt the policy because, he said, he didn’t feel strongly about it one way or the other. “I talked to Laura about it and she was neutral,” he said.

Walter stressed that the opening prayer is “nondenominational.” He said it is coordinated by the Riverhead Clergy Council, which for several years had Rabbi William Siemers, former rabbi at Temple Israel in Riverhead, as its liaison to town hall.

But the religious leaders offering the invocations before town meetings have been overwhelmingly Christian.

Each December, the town supervisor’s office sends an invitation letter to its “assemblies list” — which according to the policy is to be compiled to include all churches, synagogues, congregations, temples, mosques or other religious assemblies in the Town of Riverhead.

The Riverhead Clergy Council handles the scheduling, Walter said.

The Rev. Dr. Sean Murray, pastor at First Congregational Church of Riverhead and the Riverhead Clergy Council’s town board liaison, said the invocations are generally given by active members of the council, which is dominated by the so-called main line Protestant churches. However, other clergy — generally evangelical Christians — also regularly participate, Murray said. “We’d love for it to be more inter-faith than it is,” he said, adding that the rabbi at Temple Israel — currently Rabbi Michael Roscoe — is the only non-Christian participant.

Riverhead’s one mosque has never participated in the clergy council, he said. “The Muslims are basically invisible here. They keep to themselves.”

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Denise Civiletti
Denise is a veteran local reporter and editor, an attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including a “writer of the year” award from the N.Y. Press Association in 2015. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website. Email Denise.