Prayer may take center stage in court
The U.S. Supreme Court is taking up a profound and potentially precedent-setting case on a controversial topic — the practice of prayer during local government meetings.
The nation’s highest court will hear oral arguments this week in a case out of New York State in which residents of a town challenged prayers by Christian clergy and lay people at municipal meetings. Some residents in Greece, N.Y., argue that having Christians exclusively recite prayers is unconstitutional under the separation of church and state and means the town government endorses one religion. Local leaders in Greece, N.Y., appealed a U.S. Circuit Court ruling against the town, saying that prayers at meetings don’t coerce people to follow a certain religion.
The Supreme Court could take several approaches when the justices rule next year in the case of Town of Greece (N.Y.) v. Galloway, said Scott Gaylord, an associate professor of law at Elon University. But the court has the chance to make a landmark ruling that could set a definitive standard for what type of prayers are permissible at government meetings, Gaylord told The High Point Enterprise.
“It’s certainly difficult to read the tea leaves. But I think there is a better than normal or average chance of a major decision in this case,” said Gaylord, a constitutional law expert.
Prayer at government meetings has been a pressing local issue, including controversies in the recent past involving High Point City Council and the boards of commissioners in Forsyth and Rowan counties. The local controversies have focused on public prayers with direct references to specific religious figures, such as Jesus Christ, in place of nonsectarian prayers that refer only to God or a higher being.
Former High Point City Councilman Mike Pugh campaigned for years to try to expand the scope of prayers recited at council meetings. Pugh, who lost his council seat in last year’s election, said he believes Christian prayers during government meetings reflect the religious heritage of the country.
“This is a Christian nation. This nation is comprised of 80 percent-plus Christians,” Pugh said. “Countries are primarily identified by their religion. And we were founded as a Christian nation and have always been a Christian nation. Someone somewhere is trying to change that.”
Pugh said that the attempt to block prayers at government meetings is part of a larger campaign to attack Christianity in the United States.
One public official in the Triad has taken a different — and neutral — approach to prayer at public meetings during the past 10 years. Greensboro attorney and civic leader Henry Isaacson, who is Jewish, has served as chairman of the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority since 2003. At each monthly board meeting, he opens with a request for anyone present to recognize a moment of silence and reflect as he or she sees fit.
Isaacson said he avoids making a reference to any faith or religion out of respect for the different backgrounds of the men and women at an Airport Authority meeting.
“I want to give everybody the freedom and latitude to do what they wish, and not just to thrust my form of prayer or reflection on them,” Isaacson said. “I want each of us to reflect in our own way. Just because I’m the chair (of the authority), I don’t think I’m privileged to direct others how to pray or whether to pray at all.”
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Constitutional law professor Scott Gaylord said he can understand why local government officials might be confused about what types of prayers are permitted or prohibited at municipal and county meetings.
In the past 30 years, the federal courts have moved across the judicial map in defining what constitutes a permissible statement of faith during a government gathering.
Gaylord, an associate professor of law at Elon University, said the U.S. Supreme Court could end much of the uncertainty and make a landmark ruling on prayer at public meetings through a case before the justices now. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments Wednesday in Town of Greece (N.Y.) v. Galloway, a case out of upstate New York that could allow the nine justices to redefine what constitutes permissible prayer at government meetings. The Supreme Court would issue a ruling next year, probably in the spring to early summer.
The Town of Greece (N.Y.) v. Galloway case focuses on whether Christian prayers during meetings of a local town council constitute an endorsement of religion. Several residents of the town challenged the prayer practice, which a U.S. Circuit Court ruled unconstitutional under the separation of church and state. The town is appealing to the Supreme Court, arguing the prayers don’t coerce people who attend meetings, or citizens of the town, to practice a certain faith.
The Supreme Court could take several approaches in its ruling, Gaylord told The High Point Enterprise. The court could rule narrowly on the specifics in the case, which wouldn’t set a major precedent. Or the justices could side with the town in a landmark ruling, which would potentially broaden the types of prayers that could be recited at local government meetings. Conversely, the Supreme Court could go the other way in a landmark decision, siding with residents of the town who challenged the prayer practice and limiting what religious references can be made at local government meetings.
“It depends on how narrowly or broadly the court construes the ruling,” Gaylord said.
In the past three decades, the courts have offered different interpretations of what constitutes a permissible prayer at local government meetings or a display of a religious symbol, such as a Christian cross or manger at Christmastime, on government property.
“There’s no good way to know,” Gaylord said. “When the standards are so confused, it makes it extremely difficult to know what is proper.”
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The U.S. Supreme Court is taking up the topic of prayer at local government meetings through the case of Town of Greece (N.Y.) v. Galloway. The council in the upstate New York town opened its meetings with prayers led by members of the clergy or local citizens. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the practice under the establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment, saying that the content of the prayers created the impression that the council was endorsing Christianity. The town is challenging the endorsement ruling, arguing that prayers at government meetings should be forbidden only if they coerce someone into believing in a specific faith.
The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case Wednesday. A decision would be issued by the justices in the spring or early summer of next year.
Source: N.C. Justice Center