Utah leaders try to protect prayers at government meetings
By Matt Canham
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Aug 05 2013 03:48PM
Washington • Governments should keep the right to start a meeting with a prayer, argue Utah’s two senators and the state’s attorney general in briefs filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.
The nine justices are expected to hear a case in October involving the town of Greece, N.Y. An appellate court ruled the town violated the Constitution’s prohibition on the establishment of religion by starting its board meetings with predominantly, but not exclusively, Christian prayers.
That ruling contradicts other decisions, including the 1983 Supreme Court case Marsh v. Chambers, which upheld the right to start a legislative gathering with a prayer because of the "unambiguous and unbroken history" dating back to the first Congress.
Sens. Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, R-Utah, joined 32 other senators in a brief filed Monday that argues the high court shouldn’t change the long-standing precedent. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., organized the friend-of-the-court brief that has the backing of one Democrat, Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana.
"The Supreme Court has distorted the religion clauses of the First Amendment more than almost any other," Hatch said in a statement. "Legislative prayers are as old as America and courts have no business regulating them. This case allows the Supreme Court to return to constitutional sanity on this issue."
Utah Attorney General John Swallow joined a separate brief in the case of Greece v. Galloway. That brief, co-written by the attorneys general from Texas and Indiana and signed by 21 others, says: "The court should reject the assumption that the content of private citizens’ prayers before legislative assemblies is attributable exclusively to the government. Such prayers, rather, are expressions of private belief made in service to an elected body of citizens."
Americans United for Separation of Church and State first filed suit on behalf of two women — one Jewish and one atheist — in 2008. Last year, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that the council appears to have picked a faith since a large majority of the prayers were Christian in nature.
"A town council meeting isn’t a church service, and it shouldn’t seem like one," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "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."
Both bodies of Congress start each session with a prayer and the Senate has a full-time chaplain. Barry C. Black, a retired rear admiral and a Seventh-day Adventist, uses his deep baritone to ask God to guide the elected representatives.
"Eternal Lord God, source of our life, you are high above all, yet in all," said Black, in the last prayer before the Senate’s August recess. "Empower our senators to bring your freedom to those shackled by fear. Help them to lift the burdens that are too heavy for people to carry. Lengthen their vision that they may see beyond today and make decision that will have an impact for eternity."
The Utah Supreme Court upheld the right of governments to start meetings with a prayer in 1993, saying it was legal as long as the opportunity was offered to people of all faiths and those without one.
The case was brought against the Salt Lake City Council by the Society of Separationists, a group representing atheists. The council prevailed in court, but dropped its opening prayer after the ruling.
The state Legislature still begins each day of its annual session with a prayer from a different member, religious leader or community member.
The Salt Lake County Council allows for an invocation, reading or thought before its weekly sessions, which recently has consisted more of quotes from famous people.