A total of 23 states have joined forces to encourage the Supreme Court to rule once and for all that legislative prayer delivered at the beginning of government meetings is constitutional.
Indiana's attorney general Greg Zoeller and Texas's attorney general Greg Abbott co-authored an amicus brief, joined by 21 other states, filed in the Supreme Court case Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, Susan, which questions the constitutionality of public prayer at government meetings. The Supreme Court will be addressing this case in its next session in October 2014, and will be considering a previous ruling by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York which found prayers in Greece, New York to be unconstitutional because they focused predominately on Christianity.
The amicus brief filed by Zoeller and others late last week "asks the Supreme Court to overturn a U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had prohibited legislative prayer at the start of a government assembly," according to a statement issued by the attorney general's office.
"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. We ask the Supreme Court to provide clarity so that uncertainty will not hinder the authority of our state Legislatures to make decisions," Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller said in a statement.
Other states which are a part of the amicus brief include Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.
In 2008, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, residents of Greece, N.Y., sued the city, claiming that it had violated the First Amendment's rule of separation of church and state by allowing predominately Christian-themed prayers to take place prior to government meetings. The city argued that its policy allowed for any denomination to voluntarily provide the legislative prayer, adding that it had the constitutional right to allow expression of religious heritage.
A 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York found, however, that because the city did not inform participants that any denomination could volunteer to lead a prayer, it had violated the First Amendment clause by allowing mostly Christian prayers to take place.
"In practice, Christian clergy members have delivered nearly all of the prayers relevant to this litigation and have done so at the town's invitation," the appeals court ruled. "The town also failed to make it clear the prayer was intended to signify the solemnity of the proceedings, which the Supreme Court has said is not unconstitutional, rather than 'to affiliate the town with any particular creed.'"
Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian nonprofit group, then filed the appeal to the Supreme Court. David Cortman, senior counsel of the ADF, said in a press release on Monday that the number of amicus briefs filed in this case in support of public prayer shows that Americans are still very committed to their religious liberty.
"Americans today should be as free as the Founders were to pray," Cortman said. "The Founders prayed while drafting our Constitution's Bill of Rights, and the Supreme Court has ruled that public prayer is part of the 'history and tradition of this country.' The numerous and significant parties that have filed briefs in this case support the continuation of this cherished practice."
The recent amicus brief co-authored by Indiana and Texas joins the U.S. Department of Justice and numerous senators and members of Congress in supporting public prayer at government meetings. The ruling on the case will be a landmark decision because it will potentially determine the future of public prayer in the U.S.
Previous state-level rulings have differed on the constitutionality of prayer at government meetings, with some finding it constitutional and others finding it unconstitutional, and therefore the Supreme Court decided to take up the case of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, Susan to find some uniformity in future rulings.
The amicus brief filed Friday argues that the Supreme Court should not assume that public prayers offered at government meetings are representative of the government's religious preference; rather, they are the opinions and beliefs held by individual citizens who have a right to worship freely under the U.S. constitution.
"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. Those present may participate or not, but each citizen's mode of rendering this particular service to a governmental body may rightfully be accommodated," one portion of the amicus brief reads.
Indiana has previously won an appeals case in a 2005 lawsuit that challenged the state's House of Representatives' tradition of having prayer before legislative sessions. Although a judge initially halted the prayer, the ruling was later overturned in an appeals court, which found the prayer practice to be constitutional.