The Supreme Court ruled Monday that opening prayers at a New York town’s local council meetings do not violate the U.S. Constitution — even if invocations sometimes stress Christianity.
The 5-4 decision in Greece vs. Galloway offers a win to the town of Greece, New York, a suburb of Rochester that has been defending prayers routinely offered at its meetings. The landmark ruling falls in line with a 1983 decision that dealt with a similar scenario in the Nebraska legislature.
The majority ruled that offering prayers is constitutional so long as government officials make an effort to be inclusive of all faiths, though CNN reported that the ruling was specific to Greece and gave little guidance to other communities grappling with similar issues.
Still, the case will serve as a beacon in addressing other similar battles unfolding in localities across America, especially considering the role that prayer has traditionally played in U.S. society.
Consider that the five majority justices argued that invocations are a key part of national tradition, according to the Associated Press.
“The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote for the majority.
Justice Elena Kagan offered the dissent, calling the prayers at Greece’s meetings “explicitly Christian.”
“No one can fairly read the prayers from Greece’s town meetings as anything other than explicitly Christian — constantly and exclusively so,” she said, according to USA Today. “The prayers betray no understanding that the American community is today, as it long has been, a rich mosaic of religious faiths.”
The legal battle, which has attracted attention from both sides of the church-state separatism debate, originated when residents Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, complained that all meetings between 1999 and 2007 were opened with Christian-themed prayers.
According to The Pew Research Center, the two non-Christians said “they felt both coerced to participate and isolated during the ceremony.” Galloway and Stephens believe that the presence of the prayers meant that Greece had been both touting and and progressing the Christian faith.
After their initial complaint, four of the 12 meetings meetings in 2008 included non-Christian prayers; a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and a Baha’i leader were among those invocations, however from Jan. 2009 through June 2010, Christian prayers were reportedly once again the only ones offered.
Galloway and Stephens inevitably sued and in 2010 a lower court found that there was not sufficient evidence that Greece intentionally cut out non-Christian invocations, TheBlaze and the Associated Press reported last year. But Galloway and Stephens apparently weren’t prepared to give up their fight.
They won an appeal in May 2012 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that people of other faiths should have been included in town board invocations. While Greece used a local guide to find churches, that directory apparently didn’t include non-Christian options, so the court ruled that the town should have expanded its search beyond its borders.
Opportunities for others to pray at the meetings were also not publicized by the town, although there was no ban on outsiders coming to offer invocations and the vast majority of churches in its bounds are Christian in nature.
Greece appealed this latter decision and in May 2013 and now the Supreme Court has finally settled the ongoing debate once and for all.
Those Behind the Case
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS), a church-state separatist group that sponsored the lawsuit, defended Galloway and Stephens and encouraged the U.S. government to affirm its stance on prayer at public meetings.
“A town council meeting isn’t a church service, and it shouldn’t seem like one,” AUSCS executive director Rev. Barry W. Lynn said last year. “Government can’t serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others. That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion.”
In a press release following Monday’s ruling, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, decried the Supreme Court’s decision, saying the nation’s top judicial body “relegated millions of Americans.”
On the other side has been the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group that represented the Town of Greece. The organization claims that prayer — an act it calls “a cherished American tradition” — is now on trial.
“Such fierce opposition to prayer runs counter to centuries of American tradition, which has encouraged both private citizens and public officials to pray according to their beliefs,” read a release last year from the Alliance Defending Freedom.
— AllianceDefends (@AllianceDefends) May 5, 2014
Both sides acknowledge that the Supreme Court has taken up prayer in public venues in the past, however their stances on the merits of the most recent case, Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 battle over government funding for chaplains, differ wildly.
“In that ruling, the Supreme Court upheld legislative prayers in Nebraska but noted that the prayers were generally non-sectarian,” Americans United noted, arguing that the Greece case differs in that its prayers were almost always Christian in nature.
The Alliance Defending Freedom disagreed, though, writing, “The last time the Supreme Court ruled on this prayer issue was in 1983. The High Court affirmed America’s long-standing practice of opening public meetings with prayer.”
Regardless of how different parties viewed Marsh v. Chambers, as Pew noted, the results are simple to summarize: The Supreme Court found that the Nebraska legislature did not violate the Establishment Clause by allowing sessions to open with prayer, seeing as the U.S. has a unique history of allowing such invocations.
This latest ruling follows suit.
The Obama Administration’s Stance
The Obama administration surprised some by submitting an amicus curiae (“friend-of-the-court”) written brief on the case last year. Rather than taking sides with Americans United, the federal government is arguing that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit misinterpreted the Marsh decision in striking down Greece’s prayer policy, Pew wrote.
The argument here is that sectarian content is allowed, so long as it doesn’t proselytize or disparage other faiths. The Obama administration does not believe that Greece’s prayer policy does either of these things, thus the federal government posited that the court should uphold it.
This is a breaking news story. Stay tuned for updates.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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