Quantcast
Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
| AP file photo The U.S. Supreme Court is hearing arguments on the appropriate role of religion in government in a case involving prayers at the start of city council meetings.
Supreme Court to decide if city council prayers are OK
First Published Nov 06 2013 10:14 am • Last Updated Nov 06 2013 01:26 pm

Washington • The Supreme Court is wrestling with the appropriate role for religion in government in a case involving prayers at the start of a New York town’s council meetings.

The justices engaged in a lively give-and-take Wednesday that highlighted the sensitive nature of offering religious invocations in public proceedings that don’t appeal to everyone and of governments’ efforts to police the practice.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

The court is weighing a federal appeals court ruling that said the Rochester suburb of Greece, N.Y., violated the Constitution because nearly every prayer in an 11-year span was overtly Christian.

The tenor of the argument indicated the justices would not agree with the appellate ruling. But it was not clear what decision they might come to instead.

Justice Elena Kagan summed up the difficult task before the court when she noted that some people believe that "every time the court gets involved, things get worse instead of better."

Greece is being backed by the Obama administration and many social and religious conservative groups in arguing that the court settled this issue 30 years ago when it held that an opening prayer is part of the nation’s fabric and not a violation of the First Amendment. Some of those groups want the court to go further and get rid of legal rules that tend to rein in religious expression in the public sphere.

On the other side are the two town residents who sued over the prayers and the liberal interest groups that support them. Greece residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens say they and others who attend the meetings are a captive audience and should not be subjected to sectarian prayers.

At its broadest, the outcome could extend well beyond prayer and also affect holiday displays, aid to religious schools, Ten Commandments markers and memorial crosses. More narrowly, the case could serve as a test of the viability of the decision in Marsh v. Chambers, the 1983 case that said prayer in the Nebraska Legislature did not violate the First Amendment’s clause barring laws "respecting an establishment of religion," known as the Establishment Clause.

The potentially decisive vote in the case belongs to Justice Anthony Kennedy, who did not seem satisfied with arguments made by lawyers for Greece and the administration on one side and for the Greece residents on the other.

On the one hand, Kennedy said he did not like the thought that government officials or judges would examine the content of the prayers to make sure they are not sectarian. "That involves the state very heavily in the censorship of prayers," Kennedy said.


story continues below
story continues below

On the other hand, he objected to the reliance by the town and the administration on the decision in Marsh.

All the while, Justice Stephen Breyer was trying out potential outcomes that recognized both the tradition of prayer and the rights of religious minorities and non-believers. "If all that was left in the case were questions of making a good-faith effort to include others, would you object to doing it?" Breyer asked Thomas Hungar, the Washington, D.C., lawyer who is representing the town.

Hungar said he did not know, but asserted that the town already has engaged in the outreach Breyer described.

In Greece, every meeting was opened with a Christian-oriented invocation from 1999 through 2007, and again from January 2009 through June 2010. In 2008, after Galloway and Stephens complained, four of 12 meetings were opened by non-Christians, including a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation.

The two residents filed suit and a trial court ruled in the town’s favor, finding that the town did not intentionally exclude non-Christians. It also said that the content of the prayer was not an issue because there was no desire to proselytize or demean other faiths.

But a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that even with the high court’s 1983 ruling, the practice of having one Christian prayer after another amounted to the town’s endorsement of Christianity.

A decision is expected by late June.

The case is Greece v. Galloway, 12-696.



Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment


About Reader Comments


Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Videos
Jobs
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.