Sectarian prayer at town council meeting? Supreme Court may decide this week
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling this week that lawyers and scholars hope will clear up some religious freedom jurisprudence the justices muddied up 30 years ago.
A small upstate New York town council's predilection for praying "in Jesus' name" at meetings may be approved, or stricken, by a high court a ruling expected Wednesday. It will be the first major test since 1983 of how far government is permitted to go in permitting a prayer to open a government meeting. Arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway were heard by the justices Nov. 6, 2013.
Unlike the U.S. Congress, where prayer by a chaplain has been ongoing since the beginning of the republic, the town of Greece, eight miles northwest of Rochester, has engaged in what opponents call "sectarian prayer" since 1999. The majority of those invited to pray at monthly council meetings have been Christians, it is alleged, and the majority of those prayers use Christian language that has made at least two residents — an atheist and a Jew — uneasy.
While the council did invite, as "chaplain of the month," representatives from Wiccan, Jewish and Baha'i traditions, these only represented four of the 127 monthly invocations delivered before the council since the tradition began, according to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, which is representing Greece residents Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, in the case.
Claiming requests for inclusion fell on deaf ears — the group's Church & State magazine reports Stephens and Galloway were told they could either stop attending meetings or "not listen" to the prayers — the two went to court. In 2010, a federal district court ruled in favor of the Town of Greece, but two years later, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court and said that a stream of Christian prayers was unconstitutional.
"Given the growing diversity of thought in the United States, it seems clear that more and more people won’t stand for sectarian prayers at government meetings," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in the same article. "Nor should they have to, which is why we hope the Supreme Court will place some limits on government invocations."
But is the mere act of hearing a prayer an imposition? The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian organization helping to defend the Town of Greece, doesn't think so.
"Community members should have the freedom to pray without being censored," according to ADF senior counsel David Cortman. "Opening meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution practiced. Americans shouldn’t be forced to forfeit this freedom just to appease someone who claims to be offended by hearing a prayer."
Writing in an essay on the case, Charles C. Haynes, director of the First Amendment Center's Religious Freedom Education Project, said there are additional issues hinging upon the Supreme Court's expected ruling: "Must government officials require all invocations to be non-sectarian prayers so as to avoid proselytizing? Does it pass constitutional muster to rotate prayer-givers among local faith communities? If most of the prayer volunteers are Christian, is the town or city required to recruit other faith representatives to ensure a greater variety of prayers?"
Haynes wrote that the court left those questions unanswered in its convoluted 1983 Marsh v. Chambers ruling, in which the justices found the Nebraska Legislature could have an opening prayer, even containing specific faith references, finding this "a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country."
Presbyterian Rev. Robert E. Palmer, the Nebraska chaplain at the heart of that case, filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in the Town of Greece case, and argued that in Marsh, "the court held that (Rev. Palmer's) prayers posed no constitutional concerns, so long as 'the prayer opportunity has (not) been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.'"
Whatever the court decides, local officials continue to interpret the Establishment Clause in their own fashion: in Carroll County, Md., northwest of Washington, D.C., a county commissioner opened a March 27 meeting with a reading of a sectarian prayer of George Washington, despite a federal judge's injunction two days earlier, according to Reuters.
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Mark_Kellner