May 05, 2014

Americans United for Separation of Church and State today strongly condemned a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding the town of Greece, N.Y.’s policy of opening government meetings with Christian prayers.

In a 5-4 decision today, the high court said that Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 ruling that permits state legislatures to pay for official chaplains and open sessions with prayers, authorizes the town’s practice.

“The Supreme Court just relegated millions of Americans --- both believers and nonbelievers --- to second-class citizenship,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, which sponsored the lawsuit. “Government should not be in the business of forcing faith on anyone, and now all who attend meetings of their local boards could be subjected to the religion of the majority.”

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy rejected the argument that government-sponsored prayers must be non-sectarian.

“Respondents argue, in effect, that legislative prayer may be addressed only to a generic God,” Kennedy wrote. “The law and the Court could not draw this line for each specific prayer or seek to require ministers to set aside their nuanced and deeply personal beliefs for vague and artificial ones.”

Kennedy also said the town’s prayer practices were not coercive because people are free to not participate.

But Kennedy did imply that some limits may be imposed on prayer before government meetings.

“If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbeliev­ers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort,” Kennedy wrote. “That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said the decision will foster majority rule on public prayer.

“I respectfully dissent from the Court’s opinion because I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality – the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian,” she wrote.

Americans United brought the litigation on behalf of two Greece residents, Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist. They objected to the town board’s practice of inviting clergy to open meetings with prayers that left them feeling unwelcome and alienated.

The board has not required that the invocations be inclusive and non-sectarian. Consequently, the prayers have almost always been Christian. Official records showed that between 1999 and June 2010, about two-thirds of the 120 recorded invocations contained references to “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus,” “Your Son” or the “Holy Spirit.”  And almost all of the prayer-givers have been Christian clergy.

As a result, in a unanimous May 2012 decision, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the town’s prayer policy. Judge Guido Calabresi said “a given legislative prayer practice, viewed in its entirety, may not advance a single religious sect.”

Lynn said today’s decision is unfortunate.

“This ruling is out of step with the realities of modern-day America,” Lynn said. “In a country where pluralism and diversity are expanding every day, a Supreme Court decision that gives the green light to ‘majority-rules’ prayer at local government is exactly what we don’t need.”