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Big Supreme Court Prayer Case Could Have Major Impact on the Future of Invocations at Gov't Meetings


"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."

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will take up Town of Greece v. Galloway, a contentious First Amendment case that could set major precedent surrounding the ever-contentious issue of prayer at public meetings -- a subject TheBlaze has repeatedly covered over the past three years.

That's interesting in and of itself, but consider this: the Obama administration is taking a stance that many conservatives and prayer advocates may not expect.

So with the debate continuing to rage over church-state separatism, it's likely that all eyes will be on the nine justices as they weigh the merits of an incredibly complex case.

The Background

Town of Greece v. Galloway involves a dispute over invocations at town board meetings in Greece, N.Y, a suburb of Rochester. The legal battle, which is attracting 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.

Linda Stephens (left) and Susan Galloway (right) (Credit: PBS)

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 once 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, the Supreme Court agreed to hear and settle the case once and for all. On Wednesday, the justices will hear arguments from both sides.

The Two Parties Arguing the Case

Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS), a church-state separatist group that sponsored the lawsuit, will be defending Galloway and Stephens and is encouraging 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 earlier this 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.”


On the other side is the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group that is representing 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 from the Alliance Defending Freedom.

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 disagrees, 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 view 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.


Still, church-state separatists hope to show that some of the concerns the high court showed in the Marsh v. Chambers case are at play in the current Greece v. Galloway battle. As Pew noted, the justices previously seemed to indicate that not every public prayer is protected under the First Amendment.

Among the more questionable would be invocations that either tout or denigrate a specific faith. The Supreme Court will be assessing whether the town board meetings in question fit this latter category.

The Obama Administration's Stance

The Obama administration surprised some by submitting an amicus curiae ("friend-of-the-court") written brief on the case. 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 believes that the court should uphold it.

What This Means for Public Prayer

There's no telling how the case will conclude, but there are a variety of possible outcomes. Looking back at Marsh, the justices could take broader look at the case and decide that prayer is generally allowed, even with sectarian content.

If this is the case, lower courts would likely only be able to look at specific and pointed instances in which public prayer at government meetings involved disparaging comments or overt proselytizing; on the whole, public prayer would be protected under a broader interpretation of the case.

Such a decision could put much of the debate over government prayer to rest.

Then, as Pew noted, there's the potential that a more narrow view is taken. In this case, context of prayer and government meeting rules would need to be examined. If attendance is mandatory at certain meetings, for instance, this would force people to listen to prayer who may not wish to do so, thus impacting whether the prayer is constitutional.

In the end, if the Supreme Court upholds the Second Circuit's stance on the matter, the case will be sent back to the lower court where rules surrounding Greece's prayer will be hashed out.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

(H/T: Pew Research Center)


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