WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will revisit the issue of church-state separation and decide whether a town council can begin its monthly meetings with a prayer from a Christian pastor.
Thirty years ago, the court upheld a state legislature’s practice of beginning its session with a non-denominational prayer. The justices said that “to invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making laws” did not violate the 1st Amendment’s prohibition on an “establishment of religion.”
But since then, several lower courts have said that a city council or county board may violate the 1st Amendment if its opening prayers favor one religion only.
Last year, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that the town of Greece, near Rochester, had crossed the line by inviting Christian pastors to deliver nearly every opening prayer. While the town’s policy does not favor one religion, the court said, its practice has been to favor Christianity to the exclusion of other faiths.
“In practice, Christian clergy members have delivered nearly all of the prayers relevant to this litigation and have done so at the town’s invitation,” the appeals court said last year.
Lawyers for the town appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that opening prayers at a town council are a standard practice in communities across the nation and do not violate the 1st Amendment.
The court said it will hear the case in the fall.
[Updated, 7:49 a.m. PDT May 20: Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which sponsored 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.”
Americans United brought the litigation on behalf of two community residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens. They objected to the Greece Town Board’s practice of inviting clergy to open its meetings with sectarian prayers.]