Legislatures pray: Will the Supreme Court grant their wishes?

Does beginning a legislative session with a prayer violate the separation of church and state by endorsing one religion over another? That’s the question being asked in Galloway v. Greece, a case that is being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.  According to Legal Times, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on the case. In Galloway v. Greece,  the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled in 2012 that the opening prayer conducted at the beginning of town meetings in Greece, New York,  were unconstitutional endorsements of Christianity.  The ruling could shape the interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

A bit of background on the case, according to the Oyez Project:

The town of Greece, New York, is governed by a five-member town board that conducts official business at monthly public meetings. Starting in 1999, the town meetings began with a prayer given by an invited member of the local clergy. The town did not adopt any policy regarding who may lead the prayer or its content, but in practice, Christian clergy members delivered the vast majority of the prayers at the town’s invitation. In 2007, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens complained about the town’s prayer practices, after which there was some increase in the denominations represented.

While the case focuses on the “legislative prayer” practices of one small town, it has drawn the interest of members of Congress, whose sessions also begin with a prayer. According to Legal Times:

In two amicus briefs filed this week, 34 (mostly) Republican senators and 85 (mostly) Republican representatives are urging the justices to allow the House and Senate to start their daily sessions with prayers that, as one brief puts it, seek “God’s blessing and guidance in making consequential decisions.”

The Senate brief argues that the Second Circuit decision threatens a tradition of appointing legislative chaplains and solemnizing legislative sessions with prayer that dates to the nation’s founding.

“The work of the Senate is often divisive. But for a few moments each morning, politics and party are set aside,” the Senate brief reads. “Instead of debate, senators reflect on their duty to represent every constituent, mindful of the Nation’s core values and their need for divine assistance in carrying out their responsibilities.”

The lower court’s ruling against the town’s prayer policy stated that “a given legislative prayer practice, viewed in its entirety, may not advance a single religious sect.”

The Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit on behalf of two community residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, arguing that the clergy invited to open its meetings with sectarian prayers have been almost always Christian.

Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said in a statement in May that “government can’t serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others. That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion.

I’m hoping that the Supreme Court will side with Americans United for Separation of Church and State by upholding the lower court’s decision against legislative prayer. But I know, from personal observation, that this is a very sticky and divisive subject. In the 1980s, a woman I knew was elected mayor of the small municipality where I lived. At the first city council meeting she presided over, she announced–without consulting anyone in advance–that the council would no longer begin its sessions with a prayer. I applauded her decision, as the legislative prayer that city council traditionally used concluded with the words, “In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” It was an obvious endorsement of religion in general, and Christianity  in specific. But the new mayor’s anti-prayer policy enraged the council, and fatally undermined her ability to convince the city council to adopt any of her policies.

Unfortunately, tradition too often takes precedence over rational thinking. Americans United reports that:

Earlier this year, 18 state attorneys general  filed friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the Religious Right agenda. They basically argued that the town of Greece should be able to pray however it wants because of traditions established by Congress in the 18th century and by state legislatures more recently.  Now, 23 attorneys general are back at it, telling the Supreme Court once again that tradition should compel the Supreme Court to side with the Greece Town Board.

The Town’s rotating-chaplaincy practice parallels the historical practices of Congress and other legislative bodies. The U.S. House of Representatives, for example, experimented with a rotating chaplaincy for several years in the midnineteenth century,” the brief said. “In addition, many – perhaps a majority – of state legislative chambers have a long history of using a rotating chaplaincy. Based upon a chaplaincy program dating back more than 188 years, the Indiana House of Representatives begins each legislative session day with an invocation delivered by a volunteer chaplain.”

The brief was submitted by the attorneys general of: Indiana, Texas, Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia.

Even the Obama administration sided with the Religious Right on this one. The Department of Justice submitted its own brief, stating: “Throughout its history, and dating back to the first session of the Continental Congress in 1774, the United States Congress has appointed chaplains to open each legislative day with a prayer.”

But just because they’ve been doing it forever doesn’t make it right. I’ll be watching the U.S. Supreme Court on this one. Hoping for the best, but not being surprised if the result is religious business as usual.