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U.S. Supreme Court rules that prayer at town council meetings is constitutional
May 5, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
Should city council meetings start with a prayer?
They do in Greece, N.Y., where two women, one a Jew and one an atheist, sued back in 2007 over the town council's practice of starting city government meetings with a non-sectarian prayer, usually Christian and usually led by a Christian chaplain of the month.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 today that those town council prayers don't violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution because there is a long tradition of legislative prayer and because no particular religion is being advanced or disparaged and no one is being coerced to say the prayer. The five justices who joined in the majority decision – Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas – are all Catholic. Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, who voted against the decision, are all Jewish, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, while Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who also joined in the minority opinion, was raised Catholic. Interestingly, Kennedy joined in a decision back in 1992 that banned prayer by clergy at high school graduations. That was different, he said, because of the nature of the event and the age of the participants.
The religious practices of the Supreme Court justices and how they affected the ruling are already the subject of much lively debate. As the season of high school graduations approaches, there will also likely be the usual stories in the news about lawsuits over those rogue schools that still make prayer a part of the ceremony. In past years, student speakers have been the ones to defy legal bans and lead the audience in a prayer from the podium, often to the delight of the majority of the crowd and the quiet dismay of a seething minority.
I can see why the Jewish woman and the atheist woman might be made uncomfortable by a Christian prayer at a supposedly secular town meeting. I can also see why their children or grandchildren might be equally uncomfortable if one of their classmates decided to lead the audience in the "Our Father" at a public high school graduation. These are secular, not religious, events and a public prayer is a reminder that they are not in the majority. On the other hand, I don't know if their discomfort is s a good enough reason to ban prayer from public meetings or from high school graduations. I don't believe the Constitution requires citizens to give up their right to freedom of expression at the entrance to city hall. Apparently the majority of the Supreme Court is in agreement with me.
The case is Greece v. Galloway, 12-696.
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