Supreme Court to Hear Arguments on Constitutionality of NY Town's Public Prayers

The United States Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday on whether or not the sectarian prayers offered at a New York town's meetings are constitutional.

The highest court in the land will hear an appeal from a lower court decision regarding Greece, N.Y.'s practice of having explicitly Christian prayers open town meetings.

Known as Galloway v. Town of Greece, the lawsuit was filed by two residents of Greece who felt the sectarian prayers made them feel excluded from the public affairs of the town.

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Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, the two plaintiffs, are being represented by the Washington, D.C.-based group Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS).

The group has stated that invocation prayers before Greece town meetings should be nonsectarian and avoid the explicitly Christian rhetoric found in most of the prayers given over the past 10 to 15 years.

"Town board meetings are often intimate affairs," said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a statement.

"If prayers are delivered in that sort of setting, it's plain to see who participates and who doesn't, and that can easily lead to coercion or ostracizing."

In September, AUSCS filed a brief before the Supreme Court arguing on behalf of Galloway and Stephens against the sectarian prayer policy.

"This case is not about the ability of legislators to acknowledge God or seek divine guidance. It is about the right of citizens to participate in local government without being required to participate in sectarian prayers," reads the brief's Introduction section, in part.

"It is fundamental that government may not press citizens to participate in religious exercises. And whether or not Congress may sponsor sectarian prayers for those of its members who choose to participate…government may not direct explicitly sectarian or proselytizing messages at the broader citizenry. The practice in Greece violates both of these principles."

Located near Lake Ontario, for years Greece's town board began official meetings with a moment of silence. In 1999, Greece opted to change the policy to include prayers delivered by local clergy instead.

AUSCS sent a letter of complaint to the board in 2007 and attempted to settle the matter outside of court. In 2008 they filed suit against Greece.

In August 2010, U.S. District Judge Charles J. Siragusa dismissed the lawsuit against Greece, but an appeal in May 2012 before the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals resulted in a ruling against the town board.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based conservative law firm, represented Greece in court.

David Cortman, senior counsel at ADF, said in a statement released in August that "Americans today should be as free as the Founders were to pray."

"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,'" said Cortman.

"The numerous and significant parties that have filed briefs in this case support the continuation of this cherished practice."

Since the case began to go through the legal process, the town of Greece has gotten several amicus briefs filed in support of their prayer policy.

Parties submitting friend-of-the-court briefs include 34 members of the U.S. Senate, 85 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the office of the United States Solicitor General.

"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," reads the solicitor general brief in part.

"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."

This is not the first time the Supreme Court has had to rule on the issue of invocation prayers for government meetings. In 1983, the Court ruled in Marsh v. Chambers that the Nebraska legislature's practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer did not violate the Establishment Clause portion of the First Amendment.

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