The United States Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, this coming Wednesday, November 6th. The issue before the Supreme Court is whether it is legal to open legislative session with voluntary prayer. This case started in 2008 when two local residents in Greece, a small town on the banks of Lake Ontario in upstate New York, were offended by and objected to the town council’s practice of beginning its meetings with a prayer offered by a voluntary “chaplain of the month.” The Supreme Court’s ruling could be an important decision that may redefine the role of religion in the American public square. As a result, numerous friend-of-the-court briefs have been filed by religious, secular, and civil liberties organizations.
In 1999, the town of Greece began to include prayers before all town council meetings, with almost exclusively Christian clergy from the town delivering the prayers. The tradition continued without protest until early 2008. At that time, Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, protested that only Christians (who worship a Jew) were delivering prayers at the town council meetings. However, the town had no non-Christian religious assemblies. However, with the help of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (“AU”), the offended Ms. Galloway and Ms. Stephens filed a lawsuit claiming the prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, and promoted Christianity to town residents. Ayesha Khan, legal director of AU, stated:
A vast majority of the time, the Christian clergy have delivered explicitly Christian prayer. Meanwhile, the people in the audience are there to petition their government, receive honors, or take the oath of office, and they are asked to stand or bow their heads for these kinds of prayers that their conscience doesn’t permit them to participate in. We are not asking the court to eliminate the prayers here. We are asking that people not be pressured to participate in that prayer, and that the prayer be inclusive and nonsectarian so that it avoids reference to details on which people are known to differ.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in favor of Ms. Galloway and Ms. Stephens, stating that the town’s prayer practice was an endorsement of the town’s religious viewpoint. The town of Greece then sought a reversal in the Supreme Court. In their brief to the Supreme Court, Ms. Galloway and Ms. Stephens urged the justices to reject the precedent set in the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers, in which the Supreme Court ruled explicitly that most legislative prayer practices did not violate the Constitution. The ladies further argued that Greece was not neutral in its selection of mostly Christian prayer leaders, and did not giving “nontheists” the opportunity to speak. The town of Greece responded that it does not intentionally exclude members of other religions from participating in the prayer sessions, and that audience members are never forced to participate in the prayers.
David Cortman, attorney for Alliance Defending Freedom, who is supporting the town of Greece, has observed, “If the court were to rule for Galloway, it would have to abandon prior precedent, it would have to abandon hundreds of years of practice going back to the Founders of our country, and put in jeopardy the many practices and events that reflect our religious heritage throughout the country.” Thus, a decision in favor of those challenging the town could affect religious observances at all public events and gatherings across the United States. Voluntary prayer before school board meetings, high school athletic events, local charity events, and many more will be eliminated. It could further end prayers at presidential inaugurations (including the removal of the final words of the presidential oath “so help me God.”), removal of the “In God We Trust” motto on our national currency and from many courtrooms, the termination of publicly-paid chaplains in the Congress and military. If the ladies were to prevail, who knows where this decision could actually end? It might require removal of religious Italian Renaissance paintings from the publicly-supported National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Ironically, it could also end the public prayer at the openings of each of the Supreme Court’s public sessions. (How ironic is it that this case is being heard by a Supreme Court whose public sessions open with prayer?)
Although secularists might be aghast at this thought, but the many governmental acknowledgements of public prayer serve a legitimate, and even secular, purpose of making our public occasions more solemn. Public prayers express confidence in our future, and encourage the recognition of what is worthy of appreciation in society. An acknowledgment of religion through prayer is not an establishment of religion. Public prayer has been part of America’s history and legal system for over 400 years. Even though Christmas did not become a legal national holiday in the United States until 1870, public prayer was brought to America by our first explorers and colonists. Even our Supreme Court cannot change history. I am praying that the Supreme Court will decide that public prayer before legislative sessions comports with our long national history, and does not coerce participation in a religious exercise or activity. If Ms. Galloway and Ms. Stephens wish to remain seated during prayer, or look at the ceiling, play Battlefield 4, or merely cover their ears, they have the absolute right to do so. But to silence those who wish to pray forces them to confess a belief in secular atheism or disbelief.
This week, please ask your friends at your church or parish to pray for the Supreme Court hearing on Wednesday. As you pray, please thank God for our nation’s heritage of protecting religious liberty and for our Founders who started a tradition of seeking God’s guidance and protection for our nation. Thank God for the thousands of men and women serving in city councils, county boards, and state and federal legislative bodies who continue to open their meetings by praying for God’s guidance and protection. Please also pray that God would give His divine wisdom and guidance to our nation’s government officials as they make important decisions that affect our communities, and that those officials who face pressure to cancel time-honored traditions would have the courage to stand firm, recognizing that they have the same rights as did our nation’s Founders to open their meetings with prayer. Finally, please pray for a great victory at the Supreme Court, that it will issue a strong, clear ruling upholding the practice of legislative prayer. Americans today should continue to be as free to pray publicly as the Founders were.