The U.S. Supreme Court has announced it will hear arguments on whether prayer should be allowed at government meetings. The case began five years ago, in the Town of Greece, Monroe County.
Since 1998, the Town of Greece has been inviting ministers and lay-people to town board meetings, in order to open those meetings with a short prayer. But opponents claim that prayer is almost always a Christian prayer. It caused a pair of Greece women, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, to file suit against the town in 2008, claiming that the practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which reads:
"Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion."
Opponents of prayer at government meetings claim that opening any public meeting with a prayer is a violation of that clause.
Galloway and Stephens' suit in 2008 sought the means to remedy the perceived exclusion of other religions. Their case was aided by the group Americans United for the Separation of Church & State. It eventually made its way to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where a judge ruled in favor of Galloway and Stephens.
Now, the Town of Greece has responded by appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, which announced Monday it will take up the case.
"It's been a tradition of not only the County of Monroe and Town of Greece, but it's also been a tradition of the courts of the United States (to open business with a short prayer)," says John Auberger, R-Greece Town Supervisor.
Auberger says the prayers at Greece Town meetings are not harming anyone, because they invite "any individual within our community to open the prayer, and we do not tell them what to pray," Auberger claims.
"I think City Councils ought to be focused on what a community needs, not on being mistaken for a church service," counters the Reverend Barry Lynn, the Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church & State. "But you certainly could make that mistake in Greece, New York."
Reverend Lynn acknowledges that it's somewhat curious for a clergyman to challenge prayer at public government meeting, much less direct an organization dedicated to the cause. But Lynn believes his work will actually protect religious freedom.
"I think whenever government touches things, it tends to mess them up; it tends to not do a good job," says Lynn. "It's not up to government to be anything but neutral when it comes to religion."
Central to the Supreme Court's decision will be the interpretation of the Establishment Clause. Auberger believes the High Court's past rulings dictate that Greece is well within its legal right.
The ruling Auberger refers to is from the case Marsh vs. Chambers in 1983. The Court, then ruled by Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, decided that the Nebraska State Legislature had a right to open meetings with prayer, in part because:
"From colonial times... the practice of legislative prater has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom." -- Opinion, Burger, Marsh v. Chambers (1983)
Meanwhile, those who oppose prayer at government meetings say they have a simple solution to the disagreement: that those legislators who would like to pray before the meeting, do so before the official meeting begins.
The Supreme Court will take up the case when its term resumes in October. A decision is expected in June 2014.