Is public prayer permitted at town meeting? Supreme Court to hear case.

Two residents of Greece, N.Y., a Rochester suburb, said the practice of opening town meetings with a prayer violates the separation and state. The Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday.

Evan Vucci/AP/File
This Oct. 7, 2013 file photo shows people waiting in line to enter the US Supreme Court in Washington. The Supreme Court asks God for help before every public session. Now the justices will settle a dispute over prayers in the halls of government.

The US Supreme Court is set to take up a case Wednesday that examines whether a town board in upstate New York violated the separation of church and state when it authorized the delivery of a prayer prior to board meetings.

The hour-long oral argument session will explore whether local officials in the town of Greece, a Rochester suburb, violated the First Amendment’s ban on establishment of religion by incorporating a prayer at the start of its official meetings.

Traditionally, town board meetings opened after a moment of silence. But in 1999, members of the board decided to have a prayer instead. They established a procedure to allow any member of the community to deliver an invocation.

Virtually all of the prayers were delivered by Christians, and two-thirds contained explicitly Christian references to “Jesus,” “Christ,” and “Your Son.”

Some members of the board and members of the public attending the meetings responded to the prayers with words such a “amen,” and by making the sign of the cross.

Two members of the community objected to the public display of religious faith. Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens refused to participate in the prayers and complained that the public prayer session made them feel like outsiders and outcasts in their own town.

Town officials responded that they could leave the room during the prayer or just ignore that portion of the public meeting. The officials attempted to broaden the scope of the prayers beyond Christians. Invocations were delivered by a Jewish layperson, a member of the Bahai faith, and a Wiccan priestess.  

The objecting community members took the issue to court, alleging that the offering of a public prayer – usually including overtly Christian references – violated the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion.

The town defended the practice as an acceptable reflection of the nation’s religious traditions and heritage.

A federal judge agreed with the town, but a panel of the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The appeals court ruled that the public prayer offered before town government meetings amount to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion by the local government.

The prayer left the impression that officials themselves identify with the offered prayers and that those who attend the town’s public meetings are expected to participate in them, as well.

In their brief to the court, lawyers for the town argue that the Supreme Court has recognized that public prayer prior to the opening of a legislative body is not an establishment of religion barred by the First Amendment. Rather it is a recognition and acknowledgment of widely-held beliefs.

“While the Establishment Clause forestalls compulsion by law of the acceptance of any creed or the practice of any form of worship, it does not require indifference to religious observance or a sanitized quarantine of religion from public life,” Washington lawyer Thomas Hungar wrote in his brief to the court on behalf of the town of Greece.

“By hiring a paid chaplain and starting its own legislative sessions with an invocation, the First Congress (which drafted the Bill of Rights) understood that such civic acknowledgments of religious belief are fully compatible with the Religion Clauses,” Mr. Hungar wrote.

Lawyers for Galloway and Stephens counter in their brief to the high court that religious invocations at the beginning of town meetings put coercive pressure on local residents to participate in a religious activity.

“Petitioner does not ask its guest chaplains to avoid proselytizing or disparaging remarks, let alone to pray in an inclusive manner,” Ayesha Khan of the Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State said in a brief challenging the prayers.

“With no instruction to do otherwise, petitioner’s guest chaplains routinely offer prayers acceptable only to Christians,” Ms. Khan said.

Khan warns that if the high court accepts the town’s position it will open the way for other government bodies to favor not only religion above non-religion, but also to highlight certain religious teachings over other religious beliefs.

The Obama administration is siding with the town. Such legislative prayer is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion – even when most of those giving the prayers are Christian and most of the prayers contain overtly Christian references, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli wrote in his brief.

“The unbroken history of the offering of prayer in Congress, for example, has included a large majority of Christian prayer-givers and a substantial number of prayers with identifiable sectarian references,” he said.

“Neither federal courts nor legislative bodies are well suited to police the content of such prayers, and this Court has consistently disapproved of government interference in dictating the substance of prayers,” Mr. Verrilli said. 

The case is Town of Greece v. Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens (12-696). A decision is expected by June.

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