Hnn | HNN Articles

The History of Greece v. Galloway: Will Prayers Be Allowed at Town Meetings?

 

Last week’s Supreme Court hearing of a case challenging prayers before public legislative meetings will make a huge impact. Bill Burgess of the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center analyzes the case’s history and what the justices’ said during oral arguments.


The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last week in an important case involving the separation of church and state. The American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center joined an amicus curiae brief filed with the Court on behalf of the AHA and nine other allied secular organizations supporting the plaintiffs. 

The case is a challenge brought to the practice of the Town of Greece, New York, of opening its town council meetings with prayers delivered to the audience by invited clergy members selected from local congregations. The prayers have overwhelmingly been expressly sectarian in nature, making reference to Jesus Christ or using other particularly Christian language.  The plaintiffs are two local residents, one an atheist and the other Jewish, who attended town council meetings and felt excluded, perhaps intentionally, from participation in the local democratic process and worried that failure to participate in the prayers would harm their chances of convincing the council to take particular action. They filed suit, seeking an injunction to stop what they allege is violation of the Establishment Clause, the provision of the federal Constitution that mandates a separation of church and state.

Although they were initially unsuccessful at the trial court level, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals sided with them, ruling that the town’s “legislative prayer” practice was unconstitutional. The appeals court looked primarily to a 1983 Supreme Court decision, Marsh v. Chambers, the only one addressing the subject to reach the high court (before this case later did so). In Marsh, the Court upheld the practice of the Nebraska legislature of hiring a chaplain to minister to legislators and to offer prayers as part of its sessions. The Court emphasized, however, that chaplain’s prayers were nonsectarian in nature (i.e. that he had, after complaint, dropped all references to Jesus), and relied heavily on the fact that a similar practice had been approved by the First Congress and persisted to the present.

The Appignani Humanist Legal Center’s amicus brief argued that, at a minimum, the Supreme Court should affirm the 2nd Circuit’s decision finding sectarian legislative prayers unconstitutional. However, the brief went on to argue that the Marsh decision itself should be reconsidered because even nonsectarian prayers are divisive, and in particular pointed out that the Court’s reasoning relying on historical precedent to establish constitutionality was suspect, as a number of practices later found unconstitutional, such as racial segregation, had persisted for long periods in American history. 

As shown by their engaged questioning of counsel for both sides during oral arguments, the Supreme Court is grappling with the practical difficulties and Constitutional pitfalls of legislative prayer. (A complete transcript is available here.) Justice Kennedy, for instance, expressed doubt about Marsh’s argument-from-history, asking the town’s attorney whether it is “simply history that makes” legislative prayer constitutional, even if “there’s no [other] rational explanation” and it is “just a historical aberration.” He later questioned whether the large variety of quasi-legislative local municipal bodies, such as a “utility ratemaking board” could rely on the same history to include prayers in their proceedings. 

Justice Breyer, meanwhile asked him about a practical solution, asking whether the town could open the invocation opportunity to all religious groups, even including nonreligious citizens who would offer a secular invocation.  Finally, when questioning the plaintiff’s lawyer, the justices disagreed about whether courts can or should engage in analysis of the content of prayers to determine whether they are in fact sectarian in nature, with Justice Kennedy expressing concerns about government officials “editing prayers” and conservative justices emphasizing that even nonsectarian prayers exclude atheists and polytheists, and so are not an acceptable compromise.

The Court is not expected to issue a ruling in the case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, for several months.


Bill Burgess, Legal CoordinatorBill Burgess is the Legal Coordinator of the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center

blog comments powered by Disqus

American Humanist Association

Today is Openly Secular Day! Show others in your community that they know a huma...

3 days ago

American Humanist Association

Victory! A public school in Colorado will no longer be allowed to partner with O...

4 days ago

American Humanist Association

How are you celebrating Earth Day? Here is how some of our chapters are celebrat...

4 days ago

American Humanist Association

The latest issue of the Humanist magazine features SMART Recovery USA, a secular...

5 days ago

American Humanist Association

“A freshman student was required to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, despite...

5 days ago

American Humanist Association

Who was Leo P. Thornton?

5 days ago

American Humanist Association

National Day of Reason is two weeks away! If you think reason, not prayer, shoul...

5 days ago

American Humanist Association

For more information about The Humanist Institute, please visit: http://humanist...

6 days ago

American Humanist Association

The AHA is excited to present The Onion with the 2015 Humanist Media Award. This...

6 days ago

American Humanist Association

Only 5 more days until ReAsonCon 2015. Get your tickets today! Visit the link be...

6 days ago

American Humanist Association

Seculars have been quiet and invisible as a demographic for too long, but Openly...

7 days ago

American Humanist Association

Don't miss the upcoming annual BSIC panel discussion entitled “Imagining the Fut...

8 days ago

American Humanist Association

We’re featuring new comics this week by Polyp Cartoonist! For more great comics...

9 days ago

American Humanist Association

What would Molly Ringwald say about privacy? Should a student attending a privat...

9 days ago

American Humanist Association

Luis Granados explains why Ayaan Hirsi is wrong about Islamic reform in his revi...

9 days ago

American Humanist Association

AHA legal director David Niose, author of Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming Am...

10 days ago

American Humanist Association

This week, AHA staff member Jessica Xiao interviewed Lynn Rothschild, senior sci...

10 days ago

American Humanist Association

Today is Ask an Atheist Day! Have a question about atheism, humanism, or non-bel...

10 days ago

American Humanist Association

Could we see an open Humanist in Congress in 2016? It seems Maryland Senator Jam...

10 days ago

American Humanist Association

This week on The Humanist Hour #146: A Conversation with Lisa Montoya, Seminary...

11 days ago

American Humanist Association

Mother's Day is right around the corner! If you are shopping for that special la...

11 days ago

American Humanist Association

The world's most and least religious countries.

11 days ago

American Humanist Association

Shortly after we ensure that teachers won't pass out Bibles to their students at...

12 days ago

American Humanist Association

Robert Ray, President of Humanists of North Puget Sound, delivered a humanist in...

12 days ago

American Humanist Association

Don't miss Kelly Carlin, daughter of atheist comedian George Carlin, at AHA's 74...

12 days ago

American Humanist Association

What should the humanist response to terrorism be? Clay Farris Naff has some pro...

12 days ago