What steps should a municipality take to ensure the religious diversity of prayers offered at open public meetings?
That is one question the U.S. Supreme Court may consider this fall when it hears a locally based case that challenges the practice of praying at open public meetings.
The court announced May 20 that it would hear the case Greece, N.Y., v. Galloway, Susan, et al., a dispute that dates back to 2008. It centers on the constitutionality of prayers at the beginning of town board meetings in Greece, Monroe County.
According to background on the case filed by attorneys representing the Town of Greece, public prayer has been offered at town board meetings since 1999 by Greece clergy members who were invited by the town based on lists published by the Greece Chamber of Commerce and by a local newspaper.
The houses of worship located in Greece, a suburb of Rochester, are predominantly Christian. As a result, a majority of the invocations offered from 1999 to 2010 contained Christian references, according to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, a nonprofit religious-liberty watchdog organization representing plaintiffs Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, who are Greece residents.
"A town council meeting isn’t a church service, and it shouldn’t seem like one," said a statement from 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."
Yet Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit legal ministry that argues for religious freedoms in court cases across the country, contends that the town did not regulate the content of the prayers, permitted citizens of any religious tradition — or no tradition — to volunteer to say prayers, and did not discriminate in who was selected as "prayer-givers." Alliance Defending Freedom is representing the Town of Greece on a pro bono basis.
In May 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit struck down the town’s prayer policy and recommended potential changes. Among the recommendations were that Greece should invite non-Christians from outside the town’s borders to pray at its town meetings and take steps to ensure that the prayers said were nonsectarian.
Alliance Defending Freedom asked the Supreme Court in December 2012 to review the case, noting that in the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers the court had affirmed the constitutionality of prayers offered according to the conscience of the speaker before public meetings.
"Americans today should be as free as the Founders were to pray," said a statement from David Cortman, the group’s senior counsel. "The Founders prayed while drafting our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, and the Supreme Court has ruled that public prayer is part of the ‘history and tradition of this country.’ America continues this cherished practice."