The United States Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether or not a city in New York violated the Establishment Clause by allowing volunteer private citizens to open town board meetings with a prayer.
The decision comes one year after a three-judge panel of the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the prayer policy for the town of Greece, saying “a given legislative prayer practice, viewed in its entirety, may not advance a single religious sect.” But the town of Greece has asked the High Court to reverse that decision.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the organization that is sponsoring the lawsuit, urged the high court to affirm government neutrality on religion.
“A town council meeting isn’t a church service, and it shouldn’t seem like one,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Government can’t serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others. That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion.”
AU brought the lawsuit on behalf of two community residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, who objected to the Greece Town Board’s practice of inviting clergy to open its meetings with sectarian prayers.
The board doesn’t require that the invocations be inclusive and non-sectarian and, as a result, the prayers have almost always been Christian, according to the AU. Official records showed that between 1999 and June 2010, about two-thirds of the 120 recorded invocations contained references to “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus,” “Your Son” or the “Holy Spirit.”
But the town argues that the court of appeals erred in its decision, saying that, although the town had never regulated the content of the prayers, had permitted any citizen from any religious tradition to volunteer to be a prayer-giver, and did not discriminate in selecting prayer-givers, the court unlawfully struck down the Town’s prayer practice,
AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, who directed the litigation for Americans United and will argue the Town of Greece v. Galloway case before the Supreme Court, said the justices should uphold the lower court’s ruling.
“Legislative bodies should focus on serving the community and stay out of the business of promoting religion,” Khan said.
The case is Town of Greece, New York v. Susan Galloway et al., case number 12-696, in the Supreme Court for the United States.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.