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Government Meeting Prayers Endorsed by U.S. Supreme Court
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court gave government officials across the country more authority to begin public meetings with a prayer, ruling that sectarian invocations do not automatically violate the U.S. Constitution. >he court said in a 5-4 vote that the town of Greece, New York did not violate the Constitution’s ban on Government endorsement of religion by allowing Christian prayers before monthly meetings.
In some communities, prayers have been a long tradition, but the high court had never before expressly said that sectarian prayers could be constitutional or that prayers could be given before meetings of local government entities. The court said in a Monday decision, that a prayer would violate the Constitution if there was an attempt to intimidate, coerce or convert nonbelievers. Of the two town residents that sued, one is Jewish and one is an atheist, and both had acknowledged that the Constitution permits some types of nonsectarian prayers.
The court is divided with the liberal justices saying that the practices violated the First Amendment and the conservatives saying that the prayers were acceptable. The five justices in the majority are Roman Catholic. Of the other four justices, three are Jewish and one is Catholic.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, wrote the majority opinion. He said the town’s prayers were consistent with the high court’s 1983 precedent in a case called Marsh v. Chambers. The case allowed prayers before state legislative sessions based largely on the historical nature of the practice. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote: “To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislature that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech,” Kennedy wrote.
According to court papers, the two women that filed suit in 2008, Susan Galloway, who is Jewish and Linda Stephens, an Atheist, said that some of the prayer at issue, featured explicitly Christian references, including mention of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. On occasions, members of the audience were asked to participate by bowing their heads.
In the lawsuit the two women said the practice made them feel uncomfortable. The court ruled that the content of the prayers did not constitute coercion. Justice Kennedy wrote that “offense…does not equate to coercion.” Justice Kennedy noted; “Prayers that “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion might not pass muster.” Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote on behalf of the four liberals, said that for years the prayers in Greece, New York were sectarian and the town did nothing to encourage members of the other faiths to give the prayers.
“In my view, that practice does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government,” Kagan wrote. Judge Kagan said, the court would likely find that judges giving prayers before trials or election officials doing so at a polling place on Election Day would be unconstitutional and questioned why the Greece, New York prayers were any different. She showed concern over the court endorsing “religious favoritism.”
David Cortman, a lawyer from the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group that represented the town, welcomed the ruling. “The Supreme Court has again affirmed that Americans are free to pray.”
A lawyer with the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Greg Lipper, said the decision allows local government bodies to give less attention to the interests of members of minority faiths and nonbelievers, Lipper said, “It definitely increases the leeway of local boards to impose majority religion” and was likely to be felt in majority Christian areas.
Image credit: Wikimedia.orgGovernment Meeting Prayers Endorsed by U.S. Supreme Court by Jaan