In an upcoming Supreme Court case, the Obama administration is supporting the right of a municipal government to begin their meetings in prayer, even if most of those prayers are specifically Christian.
In Town of Greece vs. Galloway, which the Court will hear in its next term, a small New York town, Town of Greece, was sued by residents for beginning their town council meeting in prayer, arguing that the prayers violated the Constitutional requirement that government may not respect an establishment of religion. A district court sided with Town of Greece, which the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit later overturned.
In an Amicus brief filed this week, the Department of Justice backed Town of Greece in the dispute, arguing that it is that the government does not have the authority to regulate the content of the prayers.
The Supreme Court has previously upheld, the brief notes, prayers at legislative sessions. The Justice Department points out that as far back as the Continental Congress in 1774, chaplains have opened legislative sessions in prayer. The practice continues today in Congress and other legislative bodies across the country.
The Second Circuit declared the Town of Greece prayers unconstitutional, though, because they were mostly Christian prayers, making specific references to Jesus or the Trinity. This type of prayer is not allowed, it argued, because the Supreme Court has said that such government sponsored prayers may not advance a single religious sect.
The Justice Department's brief argues that the appeals court decision was wrong because it requires the government to police the content of prayers.
"The unbroken history of the offering of prayer in Congress, for example, has included a large majority of Christian prayer-givers and a substantial number of prayers with identifiably sectarian references," the brief states. "Neither federal courts nor legislative bodies are well suited to police the content of such prayers, and this Court has consistently disapproved of government interference in dictating the substance of prayers."