Reaction as Supreme Court upholds town council prayer

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Justice Anthony Kennedy. - PHOTO: Courtesy

The U.S. Supreme Court on May 5 upheld the practice of starting town meetings with official sectarian prayer.

Residents of Greece, N.Y., sued to challenge the practice, objecting to hearing government prayers, the majority of which were expressly Christian invocations, at public meetings.

In a news release this afternoon, Daniel Mach of the ACLU’s program on freedom of religion and belief, said, “We are disappointed by today’s decision. Official religious favoritism should be off-limits under the Constitution. Town-sponsored sectarian prayer violates the basic rule requiring the government to stay neutral on matters of faith.”

The ACLU had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case that supported Greece residents.

Arthur Eisenberg, with the ACLU of New York, said, “The constitutional requirement that church and state must be separated rests, in part, on the understanding that when government supports one religion over others, people who are not members of the favored religion are made to feel like outsiders by their government,”

The Court, in a 5-4 decision, said that Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 ruling that permits state legislatures to pay for official chaplains and open sessions with prayers, also authorizes the town’s practice of prayer at meetings.

wrote for the majority: “Respondents argue, in effect, that legislative prayer may be addressed only to a generic God. The law and the Court could not draw this line for each specific prayer or seek to require ministers to set aside their nuanced and deeply personal beliefs for vague and artificial ones.”

The justice also wrote that people were not coerced into participating in the prayer.

“The Supreme Court just relegated millions of Americans — both believers and nonbelievers — to second-class citizenship,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, which sponsored the lawsuit. “Government should not be in the business of forcing faith on anyone, and now all who attend meetings of their local boards could be subjected to the religion of the majority.”

Official records showed that between 1999 and June 2010, about two-thirds of the 120 recorded invocations at the Greece town meetings contained references to “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus,” “Your Son” or the “Holy Spirit.” And almost all of the prayer-givers were Christian clergy.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote a dissent, “I respectfully dissent from the Court’s opinion because I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality — the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”