The opening of a town board meeting in Greece, N.Y. starts out each week with a very similar, and decidedly religious, overtone: The town Supervisor invites a minister to begin their meeting with prayer, who then asks for divine guidance and closes the prayer by invoking Christ Jesus. “Amen,” say the town board members.
The public prayers of this Rochester suburb are now being elevated to the highest court in the land. Despite the government shutdown, the Supreme Court begins its new term tomorrow, and one of the paramount cases expected to be heard in the coming months is the issue of public prayer, reports the CS Monitor on Oct. 6.
In the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court will consider whether the offering of a prayer prior to town hall meetings violates First Amendment separation of church and state. The decision will have a far reaching impact on any perceived government endorsement of religion during official functions.
The nine-member high court has not heard a case on public prayer since they upheld the practice three decades ago. The 1983 Supreme Court decision of Marsh v. Chambers permitted legislative prayers as long as there was no discrimination in selecting what religious group was chosen to offer the prayer.
Residents attending the Greece meetings say that is not what's happening.
Susan Galloway, 51, is spearheading the effort to fight the ruling, saying that officials in Greece consistently violate the Constitution by endorsing Christianity in their public prayers.
“Government should be inclusive,” says Galloway, who is Jewish. “There are people who don’t believe, and they’re part of this country, too. We all have a right to be part of it and not feel excluded.”
The town disagrees, saying they have not discriminated against other faiths. Officials say that while the opening prayer is typically given by a Christian minister, they are amenable to any other religion that would like to step forward to represent the town in prayer. In the past, the prayer has been delivered by a Jewish man, a Bahai leader, even a Wiccan priestess who called on Greek gods Apollo and Athena.
“People from other faiths did volunteer, which is great,” says Brett Harvey, one of Greece’s lawyers. “The town has no problem with any of that.”
Galloway does however have a problem. In a five year battle that she has been waging against the town along with friend Linda Stephens, an atheist, she says town officials have made no effort to be non-discriminatory, instead telling the pair to “leave the room” during the prayer. Galloway and Stephens filed a suit in state, and then federal court.
“A federal judge dismissed their suit, but a federal appeals court in New York agreed with them. The appeals court ruled that conducting an overtly Christian prayer before town meetings was a form of government endorsement of religion,” writes the CS Monitor. Now the case is going before the Supreme Court.
“It’s clear that the Constitution allows the government to open its meetings by invoking divine guidance,” Harvey said. “And once you do that, you need to let people pray consistent with the dictates of their own conscience.”
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