July 27, 2013

Supreme Court considers town's prayers

At issue are the legal limits of religious expression at official functions nationwide.

Bloomberg News

On a sultry July evening, Supervisor John Auberger began the Greece, N.Y., town board meeting in his usual way: He invited a Christian minister to seek God's blessing.

SCOTUS
click image to enlarge

Nathan Miller leads a brief opening prayer at a town board meeting in Greece, N.Y., on June 16.

Bloomberg News photo by Heather Ainsworth

"Would you bow your heads with me as I pray?" Nathan Miller of Northridge Church asked the audience. Auberger and 14 other officials on the dais listened silently as Miller asked God to guide the meeting while invoking "your son, Jesus."

The town's solemn prayers are now the focus of a Supreme Court fight that may reshape the legal limits on religious expression at official functions nationwide. The case, a highlight of the nine-month term that starts in October, will mark the first time the court has considered legislative prayer since upholding the practice 30 years ago. Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has been receptive to efforts to bring religion into the public square.

Two residents of the Rochester suburb have waged a five- year campaign, arguing that the town is going beyond what the justices allowed in 1983, violating the Constitution by endorsing Christianity.

"Government should be inclusive," said Susan Galloway, 51, one of the women challenging the practice. "There are people who don't believe, and they're part of this country, too. We all have a right to be part of it and not feel excluded."

THREATENING LETTERS

The dispute has turned bitter at times. Galloway and her friend Linda Stephens, a retired school librarian, say they have received anonymous letters warning them to "be careful." Stephens woke up one morning to discover someone had dug up her mailbox and placed it on top of her car.

The town rejects their complaint, arguing that it hasn't shut out members of other faiths. Officials say the opening prayer has been delivered by a Jewish man, a Bahai leader and a Wiccan priestess who invoked Apollo and Athena.

"People from other faiths did volunteer, which is great," said one of Greece's lawyers, Brett Harvey of the Alliance Defending Freedom in Scottsdale, Ariz. "The town has no problem with any of that."

The case will test the impact of the court's changed composition over the past decade and the ideological shift that has left Justice Anthony Kennedy as the most likely deciding vote. The justices will probably hear arguments in November or December.

The court has taken up religion cases only sparingly since Roberts became chief justice in 2005. In perhaps the biggest ruling, a 5-4 decision in 2010, it revived a federal law designed to protect a Christian cross erected as a war memorial in a national preserve.

"The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm," Kennedy wrote in the court's lead opinion in that case.

Supporters say legislative prayer has been a widespread practice since the country's founding -- and not something that was called into question when the First Amendment, adopted in 1791, barred the "establishment of religion" by the government. The vast majority of state legislative bodies open the day with some kind of prayer, as do both houses of Congress.

"It's part of our historical tradition and the fabric of our country," said Vince DiPaola, the founder of the Lakeshore Community Church, an evangelical congregation, who has delivered the prayer at town meetings at least seven times.

Critics say that tradition doesn't mean government bodies can favor one religion over others. Ayesha Khan, who represents the challengers, says at least half the state legislatures take steps to ensure the invocations are nonsectarian.

"It's not unusual for legislative bodies to ask guest prayer-givers to pray in an inclusive fashion, and that's exactly what we're asking for here," said Khan, a lawyer with Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

(Continued on page 2)

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