Are Public Prayers Constitutional?

Two New York women say prayers in their town council meetings unfairly promote Christianity.

Praying hands
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The Supreme Court Wednesday heard arguments in a case disputing the constitutionality of prayers in public meetings. Two residents of a town in New York contend that the exclusively Christian prayers used to open town council meetings violate the provision of the Constitution which prohibits establishing an official government religion.

Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, filed the case against the town of Greece in 2007 because they said they felt uncomfortable being present at the meetings due to the overwhelmingly Christian nature of the prayers. The town started reciting prayers at the beginning of the meetings in 1999, and for the first eight years every person who led them was Christian. After the two women filed their suit, four other types of prayers have been said, but the majority remain Christian.

Legislative prayer has been challenged in the Supreme Court before, with the court ruling in 1983 that the Nebraska legislature could begin sessions with a prayer as long as doing so did not evangelize one particular religion. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, Galloway and Stephens argue that the prayers exclusively promote Christianity as the official religion of Greece.

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"I don't feel like ... I'm welcome at my town government anymore," said Galloway. She said the United States must "make sure that our government and religion are separate, because we are a diverse country."

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that Greece's prayers at town meetings violated the Constitution and made the government appear to endorse Christianity. The prayers frequently included mentions of "Jesus Christ" and the "Holy Spirit."

Greece appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court, maintaining the town had the freedom to express its religious beliefs at the start of meetings. Town Supervisor John Auberger, who was responsible for starting the prayers, said the town had the right to allow the diversity of religion and prayer in a public space.

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"It's important from primarily a historical perspective. Our Founding Fathers believed in the right for us to pray and have that freedom of expression in prayer, and that's what we offer here today in 2013 in the Town of Greece," said Auberger.

Americans United for a Separation of Church and State, which filed the case on behalf of Galloway and Stephens, said faith-specific prayers shouldn't be a prerequisite for participating in local government.

"Town board meetings are often intimate affairs," said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "If prayers are delivered in that sort of setting, it's plain to see who participates and who doesn't, and that can easily lead to coercion or ostracizing."

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