Demonstrators hold signs reading "Keep your theocracy off my democracy" in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday (Nov. 6) during oral arguments of Greece v. Galloway. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

Demonstrators hold signs reading “Keep your theocracy off my democracy” in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday (Nov. 6) during oral arguments of Greece v. Galloway. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

WASHINGTON (RNS) The Supreme Court struggled Wednesday (Nov. 6) with a case that asks whether government bodies can open with prayers that some people find overly religious and excluding.

From their lines of questioning, it’s unclear whether the court is ready to write new rules on what sort of prayer falls outside constitutional bounds. And more than one of the justices noted that just before they took their seats, a court officer declared: “God save the United States and this honorable court.”

Few court watchers believe the justices will rule all civic prayers unconstitutional — the nation has a long history of convening legislative bodies with such language.

Rather, the question raised by Town of Greece v. Galloway is how sectarian these prayers can get.

Justice Elena Kagan brought the issue into focus by asking what should happen if the court had opened with a different religious reference, one offered by a minister called up by the chief justice who asked everyone to bow their heads and said:

“We acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We draw strength from his resurrection. Blessed are you who has raised up the Lord Jesus. You who will raise us in our turn and put us by His side.”

Many of the prayers offered at the opening of town council meetings in Greece, N.Y., outside Rochester, have been similarly worded. For eight years, they were delivered only by Christian clergy, who sometimes asked attendees to stand and bow their heads, and frequently invoked Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Susan Galloway, a resident of the town of Greece, New York, who filed a lawsuit against the town, speaks to the media after oral arguments at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday (Nov. 6). RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

Susan Galloway, a resident of Greece, N.Y., who filed a lawsuit against the town, speaks to the media after oral arguments at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday (Nov. 6). RNS photo by Katherine Burgess


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Two town residents — Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist — sued over the prayers and lost in federal court in 2011, arguing that the town had violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which prohibits government-sponsored religion.

But they won in 2012 at the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that the town’s approach to public prayer amounted to an endorsement of Christianity.

When the Supreme Court took the case, First Amendment experts hoped the justices would help clean up an especially messy area of law. Courts across the country have come up with rulings on so-called legislative prayer that are at odds with each other, and apply different tests to determine what passes constitutional muster.

At the Supreme Court on Wednesday, the lawyer for the town, Thomas G. Hungar, argued that the 2nd Circuit erred in using an endorsement test to decide whether Greece officials had violated the First Amendment.

“American are not bigots, and we can stand to hear a prayer delivered in a legislative forum by someone whose views we do not agree with,” said Hungar. “That is the tradition of this country and that is why it doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause.”

Justice Antonin Scalia, a defender of the presence of religion in public life, also made the case for a standard that allows people to pray before they embark upon the business of government.

“These people perhaps invoke the deity at meals,” Scalia said. “They should not be able to invoke it before they undertake a serious governmental task such as enacting laws or ordinances?”

Thomas G. Hungar, who argued for the town of Greece, New York, speaks to the media after oral arguments at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday (Nov. 6). RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

Thomas G. Hungar, who argued for the town of Greece, N.Y., speaks to the media after oral arguments at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday (Nov. 6). RNS photo by Katherine Burgess


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The United States in this case, represented by Deputy Solicitor General Ian H. Gershengorn, took the town’s side, arguing that it’s not government’s job to parse the language of prayer and that the nation has a long history of legislative prayer.

Douglas Laycock, representing the women who filed suit against the town, proposed a different approach to such prayer. Government should ask clergy to stay away from themes on which believers disagree, refrain from asking for audience participation and separate the prayer from the part of the meeting where the legislative body makes decisions or enacts law.

“We’re saying you cannot have sectarian prayer,” Laycock said.

His proposal did not seem to please Justice Anthony Kennedy, known as the court’s swing vote, who expressed discomfort with any solution that assumed the government would or should have a say in the content of an invocation.

It “involves the state very heavily in the censorship, and the approval or disapproval of prayers,” Kennedy said.

Other justices, known to be sympathetic to arguments that would allow people to pray as they wish, also took Laycock to task.

Demonstrators hold signs that read "Keep your theocracy off my democracy" and "This is not a church" in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday (Nov. 6) during oral arguments of Greece v. Galloway. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

Demonstrators hold signs that read “Keep your theocracy off my democracy” and “This is not a church” in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday (Nov. 6) during oral arguments of Greece v. Galloway. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

“Give me an example of a prayer that would be acceptable to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists,” Justice Samuel Alito asked Laycock. “Hindus. Give me an example of a prayer. Wiccans, Baha’i.”

“And atheists,” added Chief Justice John Roberts.

“And atheists,” echoed Scalia. “Throw in the atheists too.”

Laycock said there were many such prayers acceptable to people of different faiths, and many examples even from Greece town council meetings.

As for atheists, Laycock continued, legal precedent implies that “atheists cannot get full relief in this context.”

A decision in the case is expected by the end of June.

KRE/MG END MARKOE

 

The post Supreme Court wrestles with how ‘religious’ prayer should be at public meetings appeared first on Religion News Service.

4 Comments

  1. Eric Blauer

    Suing over prayers…oh goodness, I’m sorry but in light of the real tragedies in this world and in this country, this stuff seems ridiculous to me.

    Theocracy? Really, do any of those folks know what a religious theocracy looks like in the modern world?

    Can we compare America’s religious freedom to ANY other country that rules by a form of religious law? The use of the word theocracy is simply the same tactic as calling any opponent a Hitler or nazi, it’s ideological and activist “jumping the shark”.

  2. Liv Larson Andrews

    I wish that all federal, state and local governing bodies used a moment of silence instead of prayer. And I do oppose the ways America can look like a theocracy mostly in defense of the gospel. We misunderstand prayer if we think its that thing everyone does before a city council meeting or session of debate. We misunderstand God if we speak in ways that bless everything the nation does as though it were the arm of God. So I think the issue is important no so much for defending what we think of as freedom but out of reconnecting with the radical, throne-toppling message of Jesus.

  3. Elizabeth Rose

    Pray aloud in your churches or temples or synagogues or homes all you like.
    Pray, privately and silently, 24-7, if you wish.

    However, it’s unnecessary, divisive, and inappropriate for government to prayer before government meetings.

    There is no way to “publicly pray” to any supernatural deity (or all 10,000 of them) at government- sponsored events without being exclusionary and discriminatory, which is directly contrary to the mission and purpose of a public meeting like a City Council intended to serve ALL residents.

    Government-sponsored, government-directed, or government-led prayer or other religious ritual is totally inappropriate in a diverse country like America. Even non-sectarian prayer excludes nonbelievers, as it excludes Hindus or those who believe in multiple gods.

    If the Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of religion means anything, it means that a citizen should not need to choose between the right to petition his government and the right not to pray.

    Instead of praying for some supernatural deity to solve the city’s or county’s or the nations’s problems, start solving them! I say, get off your knees, and get to work. You can hold successful meetings and come to rational and valid decisions without invoking a supernatural being.

    -

  4. The thing that Christians don’t get (and I’m singling out Christians because they are the majority), is that being in the majority means that one is naturally oblivious to the way the world looks to an outsider.

    To a Christian nothing could feel more natural than to pray at the time of an important decision. This ritual helps you to focus your mind in the way you want to focus it as you make the decisions you are being called on to make. It reminds you of your ethics and values, and the cultural tradition from which they spring. You probably experience yourself as closer to God as well.

    But to EVERYONE ELSE you are imposing your cultural traditions on us. You may not intend to do this, but it doesn’t really matter. The effect is the same regardless of the intention. Leaving prayer out of government is the only way to make the environment truly inclusive.

    Part of why we even have religious ideologies and institutions is because we use these social structures to give power and privilege to some people at the expense of others. This is not evil. It is normal human behavior. It CAN and HAS become evil when the power of the state is too-much in the hands of one ideological group or another.

    The separation of church and state is one of the very important pieces of social technology that we use to prevent the concentration of too much power in to the hands of too few people. The fact that you believe your religion makes you a good person is irrelevant. The inquisitors thought that they were good people too.

    Ideology does not and CANNOT protect you from your capacity to abuse power. Only other people can do that.

    So be grateful that we atheists are here to call BS on you. The moral integrity you save may be your own.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments with many links may be automatically held for moderation.