Recently the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that simply being exposed to a fellow citizen’s prayers, offered at a public governmental meeting, could constitute an “establishment” of religion. Fortunately, the Supreme Court of the United States is so concerned about the implications of the decision that it has agreed to review it.
In Town of Greece v. Galloway, Alliance Defending Freedom is representing the Town against two residents who objected to prayers offered by local volunteers at the Town Council’s meetings.
The case raises the important issue of what the First Amendment to the Constitution means when it states that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”
America, of course, was founded by those who were committed to religious liberty, and they knew exactly what it meant to “establish” a religion. Nearly all the countries from which they fled—as well as most of the American colonies themselves—had churches operated in official conjunction with the government. Taxes were exacted from all citizens to support the state’s officially recognized churches, and oftentimes citizens were legally prohibited from practicing religious faiths other than the faith of the state’s established church. Violation of these laws subjected citizens to actual legal prosecution.
This legal compulsion to adhere to and financially support the beliefs and practices of a state-sponsored church is the “establishment” of religion the Founding Fathers were referring to and intended to prohibit by the First Amendment.
This is clear from Thomas Jefferson’s famous Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor to the First Amendment. In it Jefferson decried the imposition of “temporal punishments” and “civil incapacitations” imposed on citizens based upon their religious beliefs. He also wrote against laws that “compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of [religious] opinions which he disbelieves.”
Jefferson, however, would have been confounded by the argument that the First Amendment gives citizens a Constitutional right to be free from mere exposure to legislative prayers. After all, Jefferson himself, as Vice-President of the United States, presided for four years over the U.S. Senate, during which period the Senate always had an official chaplain who opened each day’s session with prayer.