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Supreme Court Takes Case On Prayer At Government Meetings

Monday, May 20, 2013

A challenge to the way a western New York State town board has had prayers read before its public meetings has made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The justices announced Monday morning that they will hear oral arguments in the case of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, Susan.

The issue, as SCOTUSBlog writes, is whether a federal appeals court was right when it ruled that the town board's practice violates the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which reads:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."

As USA Today notes, the practice of praying at public meetings has been "common in Congress and throughout the states for more than two centuries." In the case of the Greece town board, though, Americans United for Separation of Church and State is arguing that Christian prayers have been used so many times that the officials are effectively endorsing that religion. According to USA Today:

"The group said that two-thirds of the prayers delivered between 1999 and June 2010 contained references to Jesus Christ, Your Son, the Holy Spirit or Jesus."

The lower court agreed, The Associated Press writes, ruling that the town should have invited more people of other faiths' to open its meetings.

According to Reuters:

"Although the town did in theory allow anyone to volunteer, it 'neither publicly solicited volunteers to invocation nor informed members of the general public that volunteers would be considered or accepted,' the appeals court said.

"The town also failed to make it clear the prayer was intended to signify the solemnity of the proceedings, which the Supreme Court has said is not unconstitutional, rather than 'to affiliate the town with any particular creed,' it said."

On the other side of the issue is the conservative Family Research Council, which has filed a brief in the case.

"If the [lower court's] decision is what the Establishment Clause requires, then Congress has been violating the Establishment Clause since it was ratified in 1791," Kenneth Klukowski, a lawyer for the council, tells USA Today. According to the council's brief, USA Today adds, 97% of the prayers used to open House during the 112th Congress were Christian.

As for where the law stands, the Los Angeles Times reminds readers that:

"Thirty years ago, the court upheld a state legislature's practice of beginning its session with a non-denominational prayer. The justices said that 'to invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making laws' did not violate the 1st Amendment's prohibition on an 'establishment of religion.'

"But since then, several lower courts have said that a city council or county board may violate the 1st Amendment if its opening prayers favor one religion only."

The court will hear the case during its next term, which begins in October. A decision would likely come around this time next year.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Source: NPR

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