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Are prayers before public meetings OK? Supreme Court to decide.

Officials in Greece, N.Y., set up a system for prayers before town meetings. The US Supreme Court on Monday agreed to examine whether the practice violates the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

By Staff writer / May 20, 2013

The US Supreme Court on Monday agreed to examine whether offering a prayer before a town meeting violates the First Amendment’s separation of church and state.

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The issue in Town of Greece v. Galloway (12-696) is whether city officials violated the First Amendment’s ban on government endorsement of a particular religion when it set up a system that allowed local volunteers to offer a prayer prior to the town’s monthly meetings.

Although non-Christians delivered a few of the prayers, the vast majority of volunteers offered – and delivered – pre-meeting prayers that featured Christian religious references.  

At least two regulars at town meetings objected to being forced repeatedly to listen to Christian prayers. They complained to town officials that they felt marginalized by the town’s prayer policy.

One of the complaining residents in the New York town was Susan Galloway, who is Jewish. The other was Linda Stephens, an atheist.

After the town refused to change its prayer policy, the two filed suit in federal court. They said that by consistently presenting Christian prayers prior to its meetings, the town was intentionally discriminating against non-Christians. They also argued that the pre-meeting prayers were advancing a single faith over other religions or nonreligion.

A federal judge disagreed and dismissed the case. On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The Town of Greece, the appeals court ruled, had aligned itself with a single religion in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

“Christian clergy delivered each and every one of the prayers for the first nine years of the town’s prayer practice, and nearly all of the prayers thereafter,” the appeals court said.

It added that “the rare handful of cases, over the course of a decade, in which individuals from other faiths delivered the invocation, cannot overcome the impression, created by the steady drumbeat of often specifically sectarian Christian prayers, that the town’s prayer practice associated the town with the Christian religion.”

This put audience members at town meetings who are nonreligious or non-Christian in an awkward position, the court said.

The town defended its prayer policy, saying it was neutral and nondiscriminatory. The town created a list of anyone who might be willing to present a prayer prior to the town meeting. An official went through the list until someone agreed to deliver a prayer.

“Members of many different religious traditions accepted the opportunity to offer a prayer, including Catholics, Protestants from several denominations, a Wiccan priestess, the chairman of a local Bahai congregation, and a lay Jewish man,” Washington lawyer Thomas Hungar wrote in his brief on behalf of the town, urging the high court to take up the case.


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