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Supreme Court to decide if prayer before town meeting is permissible

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
May 20th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

The U.S. Supreme Court decided on Monday that it will hear a case challenging prayer before town hall meetings. The question is if prayers offered before a town meeting violates the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - A Jew and an atheist have sued the town of Greece, New York, for starting each town hall meeting with a prayer. The case of the Town of Greece v. Galloway is whether or not the town's tradition of hosting prayer before meetings violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Susan Galloway, who is Jewish and Linda Stephens, who is atheist, collaborated to bring the case to court, after the city officials refused to stop the practice of prayer before meetings.

The town of Greece has a long tradition of opening meetings with prayers. All religions and all prayers are welcome. Anyone can deliver an invocation, although the vast majority of prayers have been Christian.

The individual selected to deliver the prayers is pulled from a list that anyone can join. Before each meeting, an individual is selected from the list and notified of the opportunity. Traditionally, city officials bow their heads or make the sign of the cross and the Christian prayers end with "Amen."

Galloway and Stephens objected to this tradition and sued. A federal judge rejected their claim. However, Galloway and Stephens appealed and the Second Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case. That court reversed the lower court's decision saying, "Christian clergy delivered each and every one of the prayers for the first nine years of the town's prayer practice, and nearly all of the prayers thereafter." The court added, "the rare handful of cases, over the course of a decade, in which individuals from other faiths delivered the invocation, cannot overcome the impression, created by the steady drumbeat of often specifically sectarian Christian prayers, that the town's prayer practice associated the town with the Christian religion."

The Supreme Court was urged to take up the case by city officials and friendly lawyers who filed briefs on the town's behalf. Lawyer Thomas Hungar from Washington D.C. wrote a brief for the court saying, "Members of many different religious traditions accepted the opportunity to offer a prayer, including Catholics, Protestants from several denominations, a Wiccan priestess, the chairman of a local Bahai congregation, and a lay Jewish man. Under the town's policy, atheists and non-believers were equally welcome to volunteer to give an invocation."

Town officials did not audit the prayers or their content. In essence, it was absolute freedom of expression for whomever wished to participate and even an atheist could speak, if they so desired.

Should city officials be blamed that it was primarily Christians who sought to share prayers with the community?

However, lawyers for the plaintiffs claimed that Christian prayer excluded others. Ayesha Khan, a lawyer with Americans United for Separation of Church and State told the court in her brief that the city officials "exploited its prayer opportunity to advance one faith to the exclusion of others."

Yet there is no evidence that anyone was excluded, ever. Nor is participation in the prayers compulsory for any individual.

"With the exception of a four-meeting hiatus around the time of the filing of this lawsuit in 2008, the Town has relied exclusively on Christian clergy, who have persistently delivered overtly Christian prayers," Kahn complained.

Other court decisions have given mixed signals on whether or not prayer should be permitted before official meetings, an whether it is free speech in itself or represents an endorsement of religion in violation of the Establishment Clause.

Cities and towns have hosted prayerful gatherings since the foundation of the Republic. In over two centuries, no court has ever been troubled by it. Only recently as atheists have become more vocal, has the nation begun to see an organized attempt to separate the nation from its Christian and religious heritage.

It seems ironic that in a community with a very open and liberal prayer tradition, that atheists would protest freedom of expression.

Hopefully, the Supreme Court will weigh in on the side of freedom of expression. However, even if the court renders a hostile decision, even that needn't change much. Prayer is a personal and intimate act, and unless atheists can invent thought-crime as a punishable offense, it cannot be stopped, no matter what the atheists do.

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