Town of Greece Prayer Case Being Heard Today

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 6, 2013 — 6 Comments

Today’s the day. The Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral arguments in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, which centers on the role of prayer at government meetings, and could shape the legal landscape on this issue for decades to come. I have written extensively on this case, and you can find a round-up of my coverage here. The ever-essential SCOTUSblog gives us a preview of the arguments expected to be made today.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court

“It is no exaggeration to say, then, that the constitutional meaning of church-state separation is very much in flux, and it is tempting to think that the Court has taken on a case from a town in New York to reach for some new clarity. At its core, the Town of Greece case is about the constitutional test to review government involvement in practices that have or can have religious meaning.  Should such involvement be judged by its potential effect in endorsing or promoting one religious faith over others?  Or should it be judged by its capacity to coerce what one believes about faith principles? That is basically the either/or choice that now is before the Justices.  But even making that choice is not at all simple when either alternative test is applied to prayer at the opening of a government meeting.”

SCOTUSblog reporter Lyle Denniston notes that this case could endanger the “endorsement test” in regards to displays of religious belief at government functions.

“This case, at its most significant potential level, could put the “endorsement test” into significant jeopardy.   It no longer enjoys real favor with a majority of the Court, and the sustained denunciation of it by the town board’s lawyers here could further energize that skepticism.  It is far from clear, however, what would be left of modern church-state precedents if the Court were to opt to abandon that test altogether. That, perhaps, is why the town board’s attorneys have not suggested the total demise of that test, instead recommending only that it be walled off from use in the context of legislative prayers.”

If the endorsement test is gutted, it would most likely be replaced with a coercion standard, which would greatly benefit the religious majority at the expense of religious minorities. Linda Stephens, an atheist and co-plaintiff of the Town of Greece case, told CNN that she felt marginalized during town board meetings, which overwhelmingly featured Christian prayers to Jesus Christ.

“Galloway and Stephens say the elected board of the community outside Rochester almost always invited Christian clergy to open the meetings, usually with sectarian prayers. And they say they felt ‘marginalized’ by the practice. ‘When we tried to speak with the town, we were told basically if we didn’t like the prayers, we didn’t have to listen,’ said Stephens, ‘or could stand out in the hallway while they were going on.’”

The New York Times, in reporting on this story, focuses on the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers, the case which almost every amicus brief is referencing.

“Thirty years ago, a state senator and a Presbyterian minister faced off in the Supreme Court over whether the Nebraska Legislature could open its sessions with a prayer. The court said yes, siding with the minister, and for three decades that settled matters. Such prayers are commonplace.  On Wednesday, the question of legislative prayer will return to the Supreme Court, in a case from upstate New York. But the actors in the earlier drama — the senator and the minister — have not left the stage. They continue to differ about the proper role of religion in public life. But they agree that later court decisions have twisted the facts of what went on in Nebraska.”

At The Daily Beast, Eric Segall thinks the correct answer to this prayer impasse is clear.

“Most constitutional cases the Supreme Court decides to hear raise difficult interpretative questions that don’t yield easy answers. Greece v. Galloway, however, is not one of those cases. The inherent unfairness that results from overtly religious exercises at government hearings is easy to see. A Jewish man wearing a yarmulke trying to obtain a zoning variance immediately after being asked to bow his head and pray to Jesus may feel like an outsider to the process. On the other hand, many people believe it is important to dignify official government business with a prayer. The obvious answer is to have a moment of silence during which people can pray to whatever god they want to or not pray at all. There is no coercion or identification of the town, city, or state with a particular god, or indeed with any god. That solution has worked well for public schools, and there is no good reason not to apply it to legislatures, courts, and executive sessions.”

The New York Times Editorial Board seems to agree.

“The prayers in Greece are constitutional, the defenders say, because they may be delivered by anyone, and the town does not compel citizens to pray. But compulsion is not the only issue. As Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in a 1984 case, when a government appears to endorse one religion, it “sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community.” After the Greece lawsuit was filed, one of the plaintiffs received a letter, signed “666,” that read, “If you feel ‘unwanted’ at the Town of Greece meetings, it’s probably because you are.” There are many ways to solemnize official functions without sending such a message, including a nonsectarian prayer or a moment of silence, which is what the Greece town board did for years without incident. To some degree there will always be a tension in cases such as these. On the one hand, Americans deeply value the First Amendment, which protects religion and government from each other. But as the Supreme Court has recognized, the country’s history “is replete with official references to the value and invocation of Divine guidance in deliberations.” In a country where religious diversity is increasing daily, the Supreme Court’s primary concern should be to ensure government neutrality toward all religions.”

At the Chicago Tribune, Eric Zorn is concerned about the reasons why the Supreme Court decided to hear this case.

“Lower courts have ruled for the plaintiffs, which suggests the high court may have another view — one that says ‘Prayers before meetings are traditional, ceremonial and voluntary. Don’ t get your knickers in a twist, non-Christians, the good people of Greece, N.Y., are simply performing public rites to reflect the views of a majority of townsfolk.’ I would pretend to be baffled why people of any faith would want to encourage government to muck about promoting one belief system over another, but of course I know why. It’s a form — not even a subtle form — of proselytizing; of encouraging conformity to a particular set of religious views. And this is a feature, not a bug, in their opinion. And, I fear, in the opinion of the current majority on the Supreme Court.”

No matter what the decision, it will no doubt have a major effect on prayer policy. Repercussions that will deeply affect all religious minorities, including Pagans, who have played an outsize role in the development of this case. By this evening, we will no doubt have some comment from the justices, giving us tea-leaves to read for the eventual decision. Let’s all pay attention as events unfold.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Let’s all pay attention as events unfold.If you have access to the PBS News Hour tonight, they will almost certainly interview Marcia Coyle, a journalist who attends SCOTUS hearings and is candid about nuances of the questions Justices pose for the contending attorneys.

  • cernowain greenman

    Regardless of how this turns out, I just want to say a big THANK YOU to the brave Wiccans who stood up and gave their prayers in town meetings. Kudos to you all for your courage and dedication to the Goddess.

  • http://saffronrose.livejournal.com/ A. Marina Fournier

    Given the non-establishment clause, I have wondered about the use of introductory prayer, official Days of Prayer, Prayer Breakfasts, and government-agency chaplains–not Patrick McCollum’s kind, but the White House Chaplain. Lately, it’s been bothering me more and more.

    Why are these present? Government. State. Religion. Prayer. Aren’t the first two supposed to be separate from the last two, where legislatures & governing bodies are concered?

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I guess this is an area where the strict constructionists aren’t so strict…It’s another example of the already privileged scrambling for even more privilege when they look over their shoulder and see competition.

    • cernowain greenman

      Non-establishment is not a ban on religion. Non-establishment must be balanced with freedom of religion, as well as freedom of speech. The question is how do we practice free speech while at the same time striving not to establish any religion as a state religion? It is not an easy discernment and that’s what the SCOTUS is looking at today.

      • http://saffronrose.livejournal.com/ A. Marina Fournier

        and very glad I am. I may have to read, or slowly skim, this judgement’s text when it comes down.