The Supreme Court will hear arguments this week about prayers in public life, this latest deliberation revolving around a case from Greece, N.Y., and the recitation of prayers during town board meetings. The board used to begin each of its meetings with a moment of silence. When that moment of silence was replaced by spoken prayers, they turned out to be overwhelmingly Christian, and a suit was filed. Last year a federal appeals court ruled, according to The Washington Post, "...that such a 'steady drumbeat' of Christian invocations violates the Constitution's prohibition against government endorsement of religion."
The Court, not to mention the country, has long struggled with the First Amendment, which simultaneously prohibits Congress from establishing an official state religion, while protecting its "free exercise."
In one of its more precise cases about government and religion, a majority ruled in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) that any government connection to religion must have a "secular legislative purpose," must not have the "primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion" and must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion.
In Greece, N.Y., in response to the court ruling, the town board made an attempt to solicit other faiths for invocations -- the local chairman of the Baha'i congregation concluded his prayer with "Allah-u-Abha," a Jewish prayer ended with "the songs of David, your servant" and a Wiccan priestess prayed to Athena and Apollo. Still, the prayers were mostly Christian.
The two women who filed suit, Susan Galloway (described by the Post as "uncomfortable with the sectarian prayers") and Linda Stephens, "an atheist," objected to sitting through the faith-based invocations. The women, represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, claim in their legal brief that prayers before legislative bodies are required to be nonsectarian, which those in Greece, N.Y., clearly were not.
According to the Post, Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit conceded that the town board had made an effort to diversify their invocations, but that "By not reaching out to a more diverse group of prayer-givers or making clear that the prayers did not represent the town's beliefs, the judges found, 'the town's prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint.'"