Parsing Prayer Policies.

Author:Hayes, Liz
Position:Town of Greece v. Galloway

Five Years Ago This Month, The Supreme Court Handed Down A Landmark Ruling On Government-Sponsored Invocations. What's Happened Since?

Five years after the U.S. Supreme Court's Town of Greece v. Galloway decision that set new standards for invocations at municipal meetings, communities, courts, legislative chambers and even Congress continue to wrestle with the opinion's implications.

"Even though Greece made clear that government bodies must not discriminate based on religion in selecting people to deliver invocations, must not permit invocations that proselytize or disparage any religion, and must not pressure members of the public to take part in invocations, some government officials have continued to engage in these unconstitutional practices," said Americans United Associate Legal Director Alex J. Luchenitser. "That violates the religious freedom of people who desire to participate in fundamental functions of our democracy."

Greece v. Galloway was a federal lawsuit brought by Americans United on behalf of Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, two women from Greece, a town of nearly 100,000 people in upstate New York. Galloway, who is Jewish, and Stephens, an atheist, challenged the town board's practice of opening public meetings with exclusively Christian prayers.

A federal appeals court had ruled in the women's favor that Greece's practice violated the First Amendment by having "the effect of affiliating the town with Christianity," but the town board--represented by the Religious Right legal group Alliance Defending Freedom--appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court agreed to hear Greece v. Galloway--its first case involving governmental invocations in three decades. On May 5, 2014, in a 5-4 opinion written by now-retired Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the court upheld Greece's prayer practice. Kennedy said the Supreme Court's 1983 Marsh v. Chambers decision which referenced the historical origins of religious invocations in Congress to validate state legislatures that hire chaplains and open sessions with prayers--applied to municipalities like Greece, too.

"Legislative prayer, while religious in nature, has long been understood as compatible with the [First Amendment]," Kennedy wrote. "[Galloway and Stephens'] insistence on nonsectarian prayer is not consistent with this tradition."

While a disappointing decision for church-state separation advocates seeking to make public meetings more welcoming and inclusive for people with diverse religious and nonreligious beliefs, the court's opinion didn't give municipal officials free rein to have evangelizing prayers at public meetings.

In fact, the Greece decision established quite the opposite--while sectarian prayers are permitted, invocations cannot proselytize, nor can they denigrate other beliefs. Government officials also can't discriminate based on religion when selecting the people who give invocations, nor can they coerce audience members to participate in the prayers.

Shortly after the Greece ruling was handed down, Americans United launched a special project, Operation...

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