Public Prayer Goes Before Supreme Court

Posted: Nov 06, 2013 2:55 PM

The United States Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on the constitutionality of prayer before public meetings.

Town of Greece v. Galloway pits two challengers, one an atheist and the other a Jew, against the Upstate New York town of Greece. The two women claim the invocations violate the First Amendment for two independent yet mutually reinforcing reasons:

“It puts coercive pressure on citizens to participate in the prayers, and those prayers are sectarian rather than inclusive.”

In other words, these women claim the town is aligning itself with a particular religion and forcing it on those present in the meetings. A lower court ruled the prayers unconstitutionally endorsed Christianity due to unique Christian references such “the Holy Spirit’ and “Jesus.”

The argument seems shoddy at best, considering the town does not regulate the content and accepts volunteers from any religion to lead the invocations.

A 30-year-old precedent founded in Marsh v. Chambers upholds prayer prior to public meetings. Delivering the Opinion of the Court, Chief Justice Burger explained that historical contextualization:

“sheds light not only on what the draftsmen intended the Establishment Clause to mean, but also on how they thought that Clause applied to the practice authorized by the First Congress--their actions reveal their intent.”

Legislative prayer dates to the First Congress in 1789. While it is faulty logic to appeal to tradition for validity, it is safe to presume, as Burger reasoned, that the Founders' intention in the First Amendment was not to demand a secular public square. According to the petition:

“The Town’s practice is by no means novel or unique: Both Houses of Congress have opened their legislative sessions with a prayer throughout their 224-year existence, and all fifty States and countless municipalities and counties have employed similar practices both historically and today. Each President has invoked Divine guidance on assuming office, each presidential inauguration since 1937 has included an invocation and benediction, and each session of this Court opens by asking “God” to “save the United States and this Honorable Court.”

During the oral argument Wednesday, members discussed the possibility of framing prayers that would not offend Jews, atheists, Christians or any other religious sect.

“I don’t think it’s possible, to compose anything that you could call a prayer that will be acceptable to all of these groups,” Justice Samuel Anthony Alito stated.

The Establishment Clause was never intended to strip the country of religion. If the Jewish and Atheist attendants to Greece's monthly meetings are uncomfortable, then why don't they bring in volunteers to lead the invocations? As concisely penned by constitutional lawyer Ken Klukowski:

Over the past 40 years, the Supreme Court has reinvented the Establishment Clause through the Lemon and endorsement tests to suggest instead that the Constitution was designed to create a secular society where people and ideas of faith are not welcome on equal terms.

Justices have a difficult and landmark decision to make in our nation's most powerful court. Let's hope they make our Founding Fathers proud.

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