SCOTUS Takes Town Board Meetings Prayer Case

The Supreme Court has accepted a case asking the question of whether beginning a town board/city commission meeting with prayer violates the Establishment Clause. I’m surprised they’ve actually decided to do this, and worried that it’s only being taken because five justices want to rule that it doesn’t (it takes 4 justices to agree to hear a case).

The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway. The town apparently didn’t begin starting its meetings with prayer until 1999, so it’s not an ancient tradition. It invites local clergy and then gives them a “Chaplain of the Month” award. Following complaints by Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, in 2008 the town allowed 4 non-Christians to give the invocation, but in 2009 went back to all Christians. Galloway and Stephens sued in federal district court. That court ruled in favor of the town, but the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, ruling that a reasonable person could interpret the practice as aligning the town with Christianity.

The legal issues are more complex than I have time to go into right now, involving both the Lemon test and the Court’s 1983 Marsh v. Chambers ruling which avoided using the Lemon Test and decided that prayers before a legislative session did not violate the Establishment clause. That precedent and the pro-religion position of at least 4 of the Court’s current members is what makes me nervous. To me, these practices clearly establish governmental position in favor of faith v. no faith, and most often in favor of Christianity v. other faiths.

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About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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5 Responses to SCOTUS Takes Town Board Meetings Prayer Case

  1. Scott Hanley says:

    Ouch, I agree. I don’t see this being decided on any more neutral a basis than, “We’ve always favored our side. What’s wrong with that?”

  2. Scott, I don’t think that the historical prevalence of ceremonial deism will be at all decisive.
    I think the key principle will be, as in most recent landmark cases, pure partisan advantage.

  3. pierrecorneille says:

    “To me, these practices clearly establish governmental position in favor of faith v. no faith, and most often in favor of Christianity v. other faiths.”

    I agree. And for what it’s worth, you’d think Christians would get behind undoing what Sessions rightly calls “ceremonial Deism.”

    I know an orthodox priest once who told me he was once invited to sign a petition calling for his local school board to have a moment of prayer (and probably a moment of silence for those who opt out). The priest told me that when he refused to sign, he explained to the person that his belief system required specific types of prayers to conform with doctrine, etc.,* and the ones said in school would probably not do so.

    *I assume he knew what he’s talking about. I know almost nothing about Orthodox Christianity. Also, his true rejection was probably less the “it wouldn’t be my kind of prayer” and more the “the state shouldn’t endorse religion.”

  4. lancifer666 says:

    I’m afraid that like same sex marriage it will take a sea change of public opinion to undue this egregious violation of the first amendment.

    As fewer and fewer people believe in deities it will be a rather ho hum change in policy starting at the local level and working its way up the system. I’m hoping that it will happen rather more quickly than otherwise might have been expected, as has been the case with same sex marriage.

  5. Matty says:

    It seems the internet ate my previous comment so second attempt. I think “it wouldn’t be the right prayer” and “government shouldn’t endorse any religion” can be part of the same argument if you extend wrong prayer to include letting unbelievers join in with worship that should be restricted to believers, which I think is forbiden in Orthodoxy. Under this view even a theologically acceptable prayer would be blasphemy if there are non Orthodox bowing their heads.

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