The town of Greece, New York, opens its public meetings by allowing citizens to voluntarily deliver prayers.
In February 2008, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AUSCS) sued the town on behalf of local residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens.
The lawsuit alleged that the continual voluntary expression of Christian prayers at town meetings was unconstitutional.
The following month attorneys from the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) responded, arguing that the practice has always been constitutional.
The U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York ruled in August 2010 that the town could continue to open public meetings with prayer.
Although the town council’s invitation to deliver prayers is open to representatives of all faiths, Christian ministers deliver the majority of prayers offered at the beginning of meetings.
AUSCS then appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which reversed the District Court’s decision, ruling that the practice “impermissibly affiliated the town” with Christianity.
At the town’s request, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway last Wednesday.
The ADF says that at stake in the case are the continuation of the public prayer tradition that began with America’s founding, the freedom of community volunteers to pray according to their own faith in a public setting without government censorship, and the preservation of freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
“Community members should have the freedom to pray without being censored,” said David A. Cortman, senior counsel and vice president of litigation with Alliance Defending Freedom.
“Opening meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution practiced,” he added. “Americans shouldn’t be forced to forfeit this freedom just to appease someone who claims to be offended by hearing a prayer.”
The ADF notes that the Supreme Court could potentially use the case as a means to clarify or reinforce constitutional standards on a wide array of Establishment Clause and religious freedom cases.
“Indeed, today’s arguments are momentous because the Court’s decision will help define religious liberty in America,” said Brett Harvey, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, following the November 6 hearing.
Amicus briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in support of the freedom of Americans to pray before public meetings included statements from the U.S. Department of Justice, attorneys general representing half the states in the union, numerous senators and members of Congress, and a wide array of constitutional scholars, theologians, counties and municipalities, religious liberty groups, and others.
The Supreme Court last affirmed America’s long-standing practice of opening public meetings with prayer in 1983.
“As briefs filed in the case explain, the U.S. Supreme Court settled the matter 30 years ago by affirming that the historical practice of legislative prayers is constitutional,” Cortman said.
“Until relatively recently, the lower federal courts faithfully implemented that well-established rule of law. New legal attacks by individuals and activist groups claiming to be offended by the way private citizens voluntarily pray have created significant confusion in the lower courts.”
“The Supreme Court has already ruled that prayer is an unbroken American tradition that is perfectly constitutional,” said Senior Counsel Harvey. “Nothing has changed, so we expect the court will wish to uphold this truth.”
The Supreme Court’s decision is expected this spring.
A short video presenting the case by ADF is available here.