WASHINGTON — In a move that could have national consequences for prayer in public life, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a federal case challenging the constitutionality of opening prayers at the town-council meetings in Greece, N.Y.
“It is perfectly constitutional to allow community members to ask for God’s blessing according to their conscience,” Brett Harvey, senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, told Catholic News Agency on May 21.
“A Supreme Court ruling reaffirming this historic tradition and making clear that prayer-givers are permitted to pray consistent with the dictates of their own conscience would both uphold the original understanding of the Constitution and provide needed clarity to put an end to these attacks on our American heritage.”
Greece is a Rochester suburb, with 90,000 people. The Alliance Defending Freedom is supporting the town’s defense against two plaintiffs, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens. The two claim that the public prayers that open local town meetings unconstitutionally privilege Christianity. Since the prayers began in 1999, they objected, almost all of those who delivered prayers have been Christians. Non-Christians who have delivered prayers include a Jewish layperson, a local Baha’i leader, a Wiccan priestess and an atheist.
The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against the town. Judge Guido Calabresi, who authored the opinion, said that, although the town allows anyone to volunteer, it did not solicit volunteers or inform the general public that volunteers would be considered or accepted.
He emphasized that the court did not say that government bodies can never open a session with prayer, Reuters reports.
Rev. Barry Lynn, a United Church of Christ minister who heads the group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, opposed the prayers.
He said that a town-council meeting is not a church service and “shouldn’t seem like one.”
Harvey, however, said the case “defends a historic practice of opening public meetings by seeking Divine guidance.” He added that the Supreme Court has ruled public prayer is a part of the “history and tradition” of the United States.
“The Founders prayed while drafting our Constitution’s Bill of Rights,” he said. “America continues this cherished practice, and a few people should not be able to extinguish the traditions of our nation merely because they heard something they didn’t like.”
Harvey said there have been 20 different federal lawsuits filed against local governments asking that they abandon their traditions of prayer.
“A ruling against the town of Greece would multiply the attacks on the historic practice of seeking Divine guidance at public meetings and would suggest that the authors of the Bill of Rights were violating the Constitution, even as they were writing it,” he said.
A decision on the case will likely take place during the court’s next term, which lasts from October 2013 to June 2014.