NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — A New Jersey town has canceled a naturalization ceremony at its borough hall, because federal immigration officials refused to let the event begin with a prayer.
Carteret Mayor Daniel Reiman said he had requested that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services relocate the Saturday ceremony.
Katie Tichacek Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the immigration agency, said it’s a long-standing policy to make sure naturalization ceremonies are “conducted in a meaningful manner which is welcoming and inclusive and excludes political, commercial and religious statements.”
Its website notes, however, that new citizens must recite an oath that contains the phrase “so help me God” and the Pledge of Allegiance, which contains the phrase “under God.”
Both Reiman and immigration officials cited Monday’s Supreme Court opinion affirming the right of local governments to include certain prayers in official proceedings.
Reiman said it is proof that he should be able to open any event at city hall with a prayer and a moment of silence.
The citizenship agency said the high court’s ruling does not mean federal agencies are required to include prayers as part of their ceremonies. It cited a portion of the decision that refers to the Pledge of Allegiance and other religious references in government proceedings as traditions that “lend gravity to public proceedings.”
Reiman told The Associated Press he did not see the distinction. He also questioned why the prayer portion of the ceremony had been nixed, only to be followed by a requirement that new citizens make references to God in order to become Americans.
“It doesn’t make any sense that out of the blue this week they took the position that a prayer can’t be part of the program,” said Reiman, adding the federal agency could “host its godless ceremony someplace else.”
Reiman said his central New Jersey borough of about 24,000 residents just west of Staten Island is religiously and ethnically diverse, and they are careful to use a non-denominational prayer to open meetings as a sign of respect and inclusion.
The Saturday morning ceremony has been moved to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Newark office, where it regularly holds ceremonies.