The Supreme Court will soon be hearing a case, Greece v. Galloway, regarding the role of religion in government. Two women, one Jewish and the other atheist, took exception to Christian prayers being said at the beginning of town council meetings in Greece, New York. The case is being brought to the Supreme Court after a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the women stating that the town council violated the Constitution because almost all of the prayers in the past 11 years have been Christian, which can be construed as an endorsement of Christianity. The town of Greece, New York now wants that ruling to be reversed.
The residents of Greece, New York, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, contend that they, and others that attend the meetings, are a captive audience and are coerced into participating in prayer that does not reflect their beliefs. They also believe that the town council meetings are a function of government, and prayer should not be practiced in deference to the separation of church and state. The town of Greece argues that the court settled this issue 30 years ago in a decision that an opening prayer is a historical practice in our nation and not a violation of the First Amendment. The town has allowed other denominations to conduct the prayer on a few occasions, but the prayers are predominantly Christian, which influenced the federal appeals court’s earlier decision, according to the Associated Press. The town wishes to continue their practice of opening meetings with a prayer and is asking the Supreme Court to rule in their favor.
This is the first case on prayer at meetings that are conducted in a government setting since Marsh v. Chambers which concluded that prayer in the Nebraska Legislature did not violate the First Amendment’s clause barring laws “respecting an establishment of religion,” also known as the Establishment Clause.
The Supreme Court itself begins every session with the invocation “God save the United States and this honorable court.” (AP). The decision in this case could support the original 1983 ruling and give conservative groups the incentive to proceed with other cases regarding religious practices. According to the Associated Press: “But it also could have an even broader impact, giving conservative justices the opportunity to jettison legal rules that have tended to rein in religious expression in the public square. That is what some conservative Christian groups, Republican lawmakers and state officials are hoping for, and it’s what liberal interest groups fear. The issue extends well beyond prayer and could affect holiday displays, aid to religious schools, Ten Commandments markers and memorial crosses.”
A liberal viewpoint would be to decide that any prayer at government meetings is in violation of the First Amendment, and that no matter what the intention, people are influenced by prayers. Prayer at government meeting leads to concern about religious beliefs being forced on citizens and prompting a particular religious agenda.
The separation of church and state is integral to the country’s identity, and challenges to the First Amendment make many people uneasy. It is understandable that many people are afraid of the encroachment of religion on government since this case may encourage conservatives to advocate for prayer in school, which is a frightening proposition for some.
This case is a very difficult case to decide because of all the conflicting beliefs and intricacies about the history of the United States and religion and it’s place in government and public places as defined by the Constitution.