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

Amy Poehler is creating a show about an agnostic woman who inherits a church. An...

17 hours ago

American Humanist Association

Please welcome the newest addition to the American Humanist Association staff, P...

20 hours ago

American Humanist Association

Woo Hoo! 32 states down, plus DC!

22 hours ago

American Humanist Association

Lots of great early feedback for Fighting Back the Right, the forthcoming new bo...

3 days ago

American Humanist Association

Happy Friday! Weekends Rock! http://www.jesusandmo.net/2014/10/15/iron2/

4 days ago

American Humanist Association

How do you explain death to a child, or anyone, without religious influence?

4 days ago

American Humanist Association

Happy Birthday to Mae Jemison! In 1992, Jemison became the first African America...

4 days ago

American Humanist Association

Yesterday was Bring Your Bible to School Day. Tell us how you feel about this.

4 days ago

American Humanist Association

Throwback Thursday! Can you name this past AHA Humanist of the Year?

5 days ago

American Humanist Association

During our 2014 annual conference, Clay Farris Naff had the pleasure of sitting...

5 days ago

American Humanist Association

Happy Birthday Oscar Wilde!

5 days ago

American Humanist Association

Is the Catholic Church becoming more accepting of homosexuality and same-sex mar...

5 days ago

American Humanist Association

When kids opt out of the Pledge, the AHA backs them up!

6 days ago

American Humanist Association

In this week's Humanist Hour Podcast, we are joined by Muhammad Syed and Sarah H...

6 days ago

American Humanist Association

Another AHA legal victory, and a win for the separation of church and state! A G...

6 days ago

American Humanist Association

Does it bother you when someone tells you to have a "blessed" day? Take the poll...

6 days ago

American Humanist Association

AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt appeared on Newsmax TV today via Skype to...

7 days ago

American Humanist Association

How important is religion in everyday life around the world? Here is an interest...

7 days ago