I spent a frantic morning at the U.S. Supreme Court, where Americans United’s challenge to government-sponsored sectarian prayer, Town of Greece v. Galloway, was argued.
I wasn’t inside the court for the argument, but AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn, Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan and several other AU staff members were. They reported a spirited session, with both sides being peppered with questions from the justices.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy tends to be the swing voter in church-state cases. Kennedy closely questioned Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor who argued the case for Americans United, and Thomas Hungar, a Washington, D.C., attorney who works with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right legal group that is representing the town of Greece.
At a press conference on the steps of the Supreme Court after the argument, both Laycock and Hungar refused to predict which way the court might rule. Both pointed out that it can be dicey to read too much into an oral argument or assume things based on a certain line of questioning from the justices.
Having said that, I do have to give some props to Justice Elena Kagan, who led off with a great question. Kagan recited a long, highly sectarian prayer and asked Hungar if it would be permissible to open a court session with that type of supplication. With one question, Kagan made it clear what this case is really all about: the ability of Americans to interact with government without first being required to take part in an act of religious worship.
Laycock underscored that idea during the press conference afterward. “We are here,” he said, “to support the right of citizens to participate in local government without having to take part in someone else’s religious worship.”
Plaintiffs Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens also spoke, bringing a personal dimension to the case.
“I feel that my town has aligned itself with Christianity,” said Galloway. “As a citizen, I felt that I was different because of my own beliefs.”
Galloway noted that refusing to participate wasn’t really an option. She recounted how she declined to stand for the prayer on one occasion and had “100 eyes looking at me. It singles you out.”
Stephens discussed some of the harassment she received over the case. Her property was vandalized twice, and she received a note telling her to move out of town. She called for the town to go back to the moment of silence it once used to open meetings, remarking, “We all need to be included.”
(The photo depicts Susan at the microphone. Linda is to the right, with Laycock upper left.)
AU’s Khan, who guided the case through the lower courts, also spoke.
“Under the town’s policy, a local government can expect its citizens to kneel in prayer that promises eternal hellfire to religious minorities,” Khan said. “That can’t possibly be constitutional. We’re here today to remind the highest court in the land that it is not.”
A decision in this case isn’t likely before June. I won’t make any predictions. I can tell you this: As I listened to Susan and Linda recount their experiences this morning outside the court, I have never been prouder of the work Americans United does – and I felt truly fortunate to be part of a team of fantastic people.
Many of you helped bring this case before the highest court in the land because you donated money, spoke out and undertook other activities to defend the church-state wall. Thank you.
We do this work for one reason: to help people secure the rights guaranteed to them in the U.S. Constitution. No matter how this case turns out, we will keep fighting. Our vision is of a day when government has no opinion on theology. We work toward a time when the state leaves decisions of when, how and if to pray to each citizen as guided by conscience. We envision a society where no branch of government presumes to meddle in the inviolable right of conscience held by its people.
That is our goal. It’s a worthy one. We’re proud of it, and, win or lose in Greece, we intend to keep working toward it.