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A case before the U.S. Supreme Court is considering the ability of a town in New York to open meetings with prayer, and could have broader implications for religious identity in government settings.
“Community members should have the freedom to pray without being censored,” said David Cortman, senior counsel of Alliance Defending Freedom, which is defending the town of Greece, N.Y.
“Opening meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution practiced,” he explained in a press release. “Americans shouldn’t be forced to forfeit this freedom just to appease someone who claims to be offended by hearing a prayer.”
Oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway were heard by the Supreme Court on Nov. 6. The case was brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, who claimed that the town of Greece, N.Y., violated the constitution in its practice of opening town meetings with prayer.
The 1983 Supreme Court decision in Marsh v. Chambers found that state-funded prayers in front of legislative bodies could be permitted because the “unique history” of the United States has always included a space for prayer in the government without posing any threat to the separation of Church and State.
In addition, the town’s defenders noted, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives both have chaplains, and the early American leaders referenced God and prayed publicly.
While the majority of prayers offered before the small town's local legislative sessions have been delivered by Christian ministers – including all opening prayers between 1999 and 2007 – the blessing is open to a representative of any faith.
A 2012 decision by the Second Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the practice “impermissibly affiliated the town” with Christianity.
Cortman challenged that the ruling of the court overlooks the deeper issues of the case. “Their goal is get rid of public prayer altogether,” he said, according to the New York Times. “If you’re saying the prayer ‘To Whom It May Concern,’ it’s no longer a prayer. It’s just speaking out loud.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed one of 26 friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of the Town of Greece, argued that the Court should respect its own historical attitude towards prayer and freedom of religion.
“The Founders knew what it meant to have a state church and legislative prayer doesn’t come close,” explained Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund in a Nov. 6 statement.
“The Founders had been colonists in an empire with an established church and most of the colonies also had established churches. Legislative prayer wasn’t what they banned when they said there would be no official state church.”
With this understanding of the separation of Church and State in mind, Rassbach continued, the case becomes a question of religious identity and its suppression.
“This case is about whether the professionally offended will be able to strong-arm cities into banning anything that could be remotely interpreted as religious,” he said.
“The Court has to decide whether cities may recognize and celebrate the religious diversity of this country, or whether government must instead treat religious identity as a threat.”