Does a prayer before a town meeting violate the establishment clause?
November 13, 2013
By Jeremy Quattlebaum, Student Voices staff writer
The First Amendment of the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…,” essentially saying that no government, local or federal, can establish a religion, endorse religion, or favor one religion over another.
What is known as the establishment clause was adopted in response to European governments adopting state religions that persecuted people of other faiths. The Founding Fathers wanted a country where individuals could practice their faith as they wished without government intrusion.
This idea led to what is commonly called “separation of church and state,” which many say is one of the founding principles of the Constitution, even though it is not in the Constitution. The phrase was in a letter written by President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in Danbury, Conn.
So how does the separation of church and state factor into prayers before government meetings?
In November, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway in November. Since 1999, the governing board of the town of Greece, N.Y., has opened its public meetings with a prayer given by invited local clergy or residents. All in attendance are asked to bow their heads in respect and join in the prayer.
In 2007, two residents complained to the town that the prayers violated the establishment clause because they were all Christian prayers. The town quickly allowed non-Christians – a Wiccan and a Jew – to deliver the prayers, but soon after, the Town Board began selecting only Christians again.
Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, sued the town, saying the prayers before the meetings amounted to government endorsement of one religion because they were primarily Christian prayers.
This is not the first time the Supreme Court has heard a case regarding prayers before a public meeting. In 1983, the court decided in Marsh v. Chambers that prayers given by a chaplain before legislative sessions were allowed because of the long history of legislative prayer. Writing for the majority, Justice Warren E. Burger said: “This unique history leads us to accept the interpretation of the First Amendment draftsmen who saw no real threat to the Establishment Clause arising from a practice of prayer similar to that now challenged.”
What makes Galloway different is that the town does not have a chaplain but invites clergy and members of the community to give a prayer. The challengers also contend that in a local government setting, people attend meetings because they are making a request or seeking assistance and may feel coerced into participating in the prayer. Those who do not participate in the prayer would stand out. In a legislative session, they say, members of the public are observers only.
Justice Elena Kagan observed that attendees are “forced to identify whether she believes in the things that most of the people in the room believe in,” and how this could affect how they are received when making a statement during the meeting.
During the hearing, the court openly questioned the Marsh v. Chambers decision, but it seemed reluctant to adopt guidelines that would decide whether prayers before government meetings are constitutional, and whether local officials could or would police the content of prayers at meetings.
Justice Samuel Alito also pointed out the difficulty of composing a prayer that would accommodate all faiths, saying, “I just don’t see how it is possible to compose anything that you could call a prayer that is acceptable to all of these groups.”
What do you think?
If you were sitting on the Supreme Court, whom would you side with and why? Comparing Town of Greece v. Galloway and Marsh v. Chambers, should prayer before a legislative session and a town meeting be treated differently? Does having a predominantly Christian prayer before town meetings violate the establishment clause, or is it a reflection of the community? Join the discussion and let us know what you think!
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