Supreme Court to Hear Case Regarding Prayer in Government Meetings

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case regarding public prayer in government meetings which, depending on the verdict, could greatly alter the future of public religious expression in the United States.

The Supreme Court justices announced Monday that they will be hearing the case of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, Susan, a 2008 case filed by Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, residents of Greece, N.Y., who sued the city, arguing that it had violated the First Amendment rule of separation of church and state by allowing predominately Christian prayers to be held at government meetings.

Galloway and Stephens argued that the majority of prayers held at Greece government meetings from 1999 to 2010 were delivered by Christian clergy, and therefore the city was endorsing the religion.

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The city argued that since the country's founding, town councils have included prayer in their meetings and they are constitutionally allowed to exercise their religious heritage.

In its next session, the Supreme Court will decide if the previous ruling by a federal court of appeals, which determined last year that the town violated the Constitution's Establishment Clause by allowing predominately Christian-themed prayers to be led, is correct.

As Reuters reports, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York previously ruled that although the town did technically allow anyone, of any denomination, to volunteer to give a prayer, it "neither publicly solicited volunteers to invocation nor informed members of the general public that volunteers would be considered or accepted."

"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.'"

The Supreme Court justices reportedly chose to take up this case because appeals courts have previously ruled to continue prayer at public meetings, and therefore some uniformity must be made in the U.S. court system.

Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based Christian nonprofit group, filed the appeal with the Supreme Court.

According to USA Today, 49 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 18 state attorneys general have also joined on briefs in the case in support of public prayer.

"A few people should not be able to extinguish the traditions of our nation merely because they heard something they didn't like," Brett Harvey, a senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, said, according to USA Today.

"Because the authors of the Constitution invoked God's blessing on public proceedings, this tradition shouldn't suddenly be deemed unconstitutional."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan group representing Galloway and Stephens in the lawsuit, said in a statement to the Los Angeles Times that town council meetings shouldn't seem like church services.

"A town council meeting isn't a church service, and it shouldn't seem like one," the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said in the statement.

"Government can't serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others. That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion," Lynn added.

The Los Angeles Times notes that the 1983 Supreme Court case Marsh v. Chambers determined that a state legislature may begin its sessions with a non-denominational prayer.

However, more recent cases have determined that it can be deemed unconstitutional for a city to hold public prayer if the prayers seem to cater to only one religion.

The Supreme Court justices will hear oral arguments for Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, Susan during its next session, which begins October 2014.

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