WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court of the United States is set to hear oral argument today surrounding the issue of whether it is permissible for municipalities to present prayers predominantly in Jesus’ name, especially if area residents are largely Christian.
As previously reported, the court accepted the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway in May of this year, a legal challenge that centers on the invocations that are offered at town hall meetings in Greece, New York, just outside of Rochester.
The matter stems back to 2010, when local residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens sued the town, asserting that its preponderance of Christian prayers violate the Constitution. Represented by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the women noted that most of the invocations were in Jesus’ name or referenced the Holy Spirit. Galloway and Stephens contended that the prayers made them feel “marginalized” as they are not followers of the Christian faith. Galloway is Jewish and Stephens is an atheist.
After some residents first complained to town officials about the matter, other faiths were incorporated into the meetings, including at one point, the Wiccan religion. However, as prayers continued to be in Jesus’ name more often than not since the town is largely comprised of Christian and Catholic churches, the women decided to take the matter to court.
“[I]t’s a form of coercion,” Stephens told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle this week. “Some of these pastors tell you to stand up and bow your heads to pray to Jesus, and what if you don’t believe that? And if you refuse to stand up and bow your head, you stick out. It’s a coercive situation.”
“People think we hate religion or are anti-Christian, but we are trying to protect religion.” Galloway asserted. “Whenever government gets involved in religion, it gets corrupted. I’m standing up for religion.”
After a New York district court sided with the town, last year, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the ruling. It declared that the invocations delivered at the town hall meetings violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The court did not take issue with the practice of praying before the meetings per se, but rather contended that the invocations needed to be more diverse.
“[The prayers] virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint,” the justices opined.
Greece officials, represented by the Christian legal organization Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), then appealed the ruling to the United States Supreme Court, requesting intervention in the matter.
“Community members should have the freedom to pray without being censored,” stated Senior Counsel David Cortman. “Opening meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution practiced. Americans shouldn’t be forced to forfeit this freedom just to appease someone who claims to be offended by hearing a prayer.”
In August, the office of Indiana Attorney General Gregory Zoeller issued a press release outlining that he and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott had co-authored an amicus brief in support of the City of Greece. The brief was joined by attorney generals from 21 additional states, including Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Colorado, Idaho and Ohio.
“When the United States Supreme Court considers major constitutional issues facing our nation, it is essential that the states make their legal position known to the court,” Zoeller said. “We ask the Supreme Court to provide clarity so that uncertainty will not hinder the authority of our state legislatures to make decisions.”
The brief requests that the Supreme Court rule that prayers do not have be pre-screened for “sectarian references.”
“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,” it reads. “Those present may participate or not, but each citizen’s mode of rendering this particular service to a governmental body may rightfully be accommodated.”
ADF says that it is optimistic about the outcome.
“The Supreme Court has already ruled that prayer is an unbroken American tradition that is perfectly constitutional,” stated Senior Counsel Brett Harvey. “Nothing has changed, so we expect the court will wish to uphold this truth.”