Pray Away at the Town Meeting, Rules Supreme Court
The Supreme Court ruled this week that prayer before town board meetings is constitutional in the case of Greece v. Galloway. The case was brought by two residents of Greece, New York, who filed a suit because the monthly board meetings for the town were habitually begun with a Christian prayer. They asked that the town government be forced to utilize a more neutral prayer that simply discussed a “generic God.” They claimed that the prayer was violating the Establishment Clause of the first amendment “by preferring Christians over other prayer givers and by sponsoring sectarian prayers.”
This case, as in most cases that make it to the Supreme Court, is vastly important. It joins the body of law that will advise future rulings on religious freedom and the importance of the first amendment. But how does it compare to those other cases on separation of church and state? The 5-4 decision was written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy for the majority opinion, and found that “the prayers delivered in Greece do not fall outside this tradition” of “invocations [that] have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds.” He noted that unless there was something specifically and repetitively hostile to a certain group within the prayer given over time, historically he found that “prayer has become part of the Nation’s heritage and tradition” in which “its purposes are to lend gravity to public proceedings.”
When the issue was brought to light by those bringing suit in the town of Greece, a Jewish layman and chair of the Baha’i temple were invited to give prayers, and a Wiccan priestess who requested the right, was also given permission. This was not the norm of practice for prayers there, but that was because local speakers who usually came to do the prayer just so happened to be Christian.