Praying for Good Government

O Divine Poesy,
Goddess-daughter of Zeus,
Sustain for me
This song of the various-minded man…

-Homer’s Odyssey

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case on the constitutionality of prayer in public board meetings. Specifically, the case will examine the age old practice of having visiting priests say a prayer at the outset of an official meeting. The case examines the conflict between the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”

An appellate court ruled that the practice was unconstitutional. The decision was based on findings that the town did not invite non-Christian clergy from outside the town and did not adequately state that the prayers were not meant to affiliate the town with any “particular creed.” Subsequently, the court implied that certain prayer, with the intent to “solemnize” meetings, might be acceptable. The question at hand is whether denominational prayers are acceptable parts of public proceedings, and if so, under what conditions. One example of a denominational prayer spoken at one Town Board meeting referred to “the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.”

The U.S. has a long history of prayer before public meetings. Voluntary and non-discriminatory church services were held in the House of Representatives for many years. Preachers of every Protestant denomination spoke, and a Catholic priest officiated for the first time in 1826. As recently as 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Nebraska State Legislature’s right to conduct opening prayers in Marsh v. Chambers. This will be the first case since then to directly address prayer in public meetings.

Two arguments are being raised by the plaintiffs to indicate that this practice violates the Establishment Clause. First, they contend that Christianity was unconstitutionally preferred over other faiths by the Town of Greece. Second, they believe the prayer practice was “sectarian.” The crux of the argument is that the board was establishing in its official capacity state sponsorship of a specific religion: Christianity.

The flip side of the argument, used by the respondents, is that these prayers are free expressions of religion. The long standing tradition of prayer to open public meetings is noted. Additionally, they claim that the prayers were not intended to “proselytize.” The court will hear the arguments in October.

Additional Resources

USA Today, Supreme Court Will Rule on Prayer at Government Meetings: http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2013/05/20/supreme-court-prayer-new-york-government-meeting/2151385/?sf13006446=1

Galloway v. Town of Greece: http://scholar.google.com/scholar_case?case=13574198750186036788&hl=en&as_sdt=2&as_vis=1&oi=scholarr

Alliance Defending Freedom, Town of Greece v. Galloway: http://www.alliancedefendingfreedom.org/News/PRDetail/2843

First Amendment Center, Public Employees and Free Speech: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/madison/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/FirstReport.PublicEmployees.pdf

Cornell University Law School, Marsh v. Chambers: http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0463_0783_ZO.html

The American Center for Law and Justice, Calls on Defense Secretary to Cut Ties with Anti-Christian Extremist: http://aclj.org/military-prayer/jay-sekulow-aclj-calls-on-defense-secretary-to-cut-ties-with-anti-christian-extremist-used-by-pentagon-as-advisor-on-religious-tolerance

SCOTUS Blog, Town of Greece v. Galloway: http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/town-of-greece-v-galloway/

 

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