Pray Away at the Town Meeting, Rules Supreme Court

Source: Thinkstock

      Source: Thinkstock

The Supreme Court ruled this week that prayer before town board meetings is constitutional in the case of Greece v. Galloway. The case was brought by two residents of Greece, New York, who filed a suit because the monthly board meetings for the town were habitually begun with a Christian prayer. They asked that the town government be forced to utilize a more neutral prayer that simply discussed a “generic God.” They claimed that the prayer was violating the Establishment Clause of the first amendment “by preferring Christians over other prayer givers and by sponsoring sectarian prayers.”

This case, as in most cases that make it to the Supreme Court, is vastly important. It joins the body of law that will advise future rulings on religious freedom and the importance of the first amendment. But how does it compare to those other cases on separation of church and state? The 5-4 decision was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the majority opinion, and found that “the prayers delivered in Greece do not fall outside this tradition” of “invocations [that] have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds.” He noted that unless there was something specifically and repetitively hostile to a certain group within the prayer given over time, historically he found that “prayer has become part of the Nation’s heritage and tradition” in which “its purposes are to lend gravity to public proceedings.”

When the issue was brought to light by those bringing suit in the town of Greece, a Jewish layman and chair of the Baha’i temple were invited to give prayers, and a Wiccan priestess who requested the right, was also given permission. This was not the norm of practice for prayers there, but that was because local speakers who usually came to do the prayer just so happened to be Christian.

Justice Roberts referred to the case of Marsh v Chambers multiple times throughout his opinion, a case that held that Congress could utilize prayer, and still does so today, even referencing a 2010 use of “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” a statement specific enough to be preferential to one religion over a “generic God.” But how does the case compare to the issue of prayer in schools? In the public school system you’ve got the Lemon test — the rules of which Greece v. Galloway would fail at least two out of three, as it does advance a religion and it does constitute a blurring of government and religions lines — though whether or not it does so excessively is an arguable point.

Ultimately, what matters is that the Lemon law isn’t applied to this situation, because government is not viewed in the same way by the court as public schools. But across the board, cases involving school prayers have been anti-public prayers, as in the cases of Lee v Weisman and Santa Fe Indpendent School Dist. v Doe, which involved religious involvement at graduation and before football games. The difference between a government meeting and a public school is enormous of course, however arguably they both are a public matter with connections to governance

Justice Kennedy wrote that whether or not those in question found the religious aspect of the town meeting to be offensive doesn’t matter. “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable. Legislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate,” wrote Kennedy in his opinion. In this way, it’s clear that while in schools students must be protected as is the responsibility of the structure, while town meetings need offer no such assurances.

Dissents, such as Justice Elena Kagan took issue with the fact that a single religion was usually offering the prayer, despite the intentionally three exceptions, and said that those in charge should make sure “that opening prayers are inclusive of different faiths, rather than always identified with a single religion.” She also said that she felt the town meetings were not in-line with “the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of religion, owns an equal share in her government.” Once again, disparate from the secular requirements of a public school, which would legally disallow a combination of religions as well as a single one.

She does make one argument that is largely relateable to those made in schools, which is that a Muslim woman who is faced with a Christian prayer either has to pretend and remain present despite having a religious issue with the proceedings, or must leave or start a discussion that risks disagreement and animosity from a group she is there quite possibly to convince on a different political or government matter. “And thus she stands at a remove, based solely on religion, from her fellow citizens and her elected representatives,” Kagan wrote.

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