November 3, 2013

Supreme Court revisits public prayer

Justices will take up a case involving prayers at meetings.

By Robert Bares
The Washington Post

The chairman of the local Baha’i congregation concluded his prayer with “Allah-u-Abha,” which loosely translates to “God the All-Glorious.” A Jew offered a prayer speaking of “the songs of David, your servant.” And a Wiccan priestess, mindful of her venue in the town of Greece, N.Y., thought that Athena and Apollo were apt deities to call upon.

click image to enlarge

Tom Lynch delivers a Baha’i prayer before the start of a town board meeting in Greece, N.Y., on Aug. 20. The Supreme Court soon will take up the case of the Town of Greece v. Galloway, concerning use of public prayers before town meetings.


But they were the exceptions. Almost every other “chaplain of the month” during a decade of town board meetings in this Rochester suburb was a Christian, and more often than not called on Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit to guide the council’s deliberations.

A federal appeals court said last year that such a “steady drumbeat” of Christian invocations violates the Constitution’s prohibition against government endorsement of religion.


Now, the issue is due to come before the Supreme Court. This week – soon after the court’s marshal announces a new session with the phrase “God save the United States and this honorable court” – the justices will once again tackle the role of religion in the public square.

Few phrases in the Constitution have divided Supreme Court justices quite like the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which says simply: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Some prohibitions seem obvious: There can be no official national religion, for instance. Government cannot compel Americans to identify with a certain religion, or any religion at all.

What has proven more complicated is defining the boundaries of religion’s inclusion in public life.

Issues such as prayer in public schools, accommodation of certain religious practices, and the display of crosses, creches and other religious symbols have produced a series of constitutional tests for the court and case-by-case rules that please few.

Against this “messy” backdrop, said Richard Garnett, a law professor at the University of Notre Dame, the court’s view on legislative prayer “is actually one of the clearer areas in the court’s Establishment Clause” jurisprudence.

The court decided 30 years ago in a case called Marsh v. Chambers that Nebraska had not violated the Constitution by employing a Presbyterian minister for 16 years to lead the legislature in prayer.

Former Chief Justice Warren Burger said “the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years” of legislative chaplains weighed in Nebraska’s favor.

The first Congress, which drafted the First Amendment, was led in prayer by a chaplain, and the House and Senate have continued that tradition since then.

This is one reason that the Obama administration is siding with the town of Greece. The town and its supporters say there is no evidence that Greece violated the requirement, which emerged from the Marsh case, that so-called legislative prayer does not proselytize nor denigrate another faith.

“This case can begin and end with Marsh v. Chambers,” said the brief filed by Greece, which is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom.

That is what a federal district judge concluded when two Greece residents challenged the town’s practice.


Susan Galloway, uncomfortable with the sectarian prayers, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, objected to sitting through the invocations after the board changed from its old practice of beginning the meetings with a moment of silence.

The board drew its volunteer chaplains from a list of churches in the town. It said anyone would have been welcomed but did not publicize the opportunity. The board neither created rules for the prayers nor screened them beforehand.

(Continued on page 2)

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