Next month, the U.S. Supreme Court, whose new term begins Monday, will hear a case about public prayer that could change what is and what is not permitted when it comes to praying before official public meetings of groups such as town councils and local school boards.
Currently, in the town of Greece, NY, the town governing board opens its meetings with a Christian prayer. However 2 town residents have argued that the prayer sends a message to non-Christians that they are unwelcome at board meetings and that the board does not properly represent non-Christian concerns.
A district court upheld the town board's practice, but, on appeal, the 2nd U.S. District Court of Appeals, in a unanimous 2011 decision, found that the Greece's governing body prayer practice was unconstitutional. The town appealed the decision to the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case.
"There is a coercion and a sectarianism in Greece that we find Constitutionally problematic," says the Rev. Barry Lynn, one of the attorneys for the plaintiffs. "With the prayer, you better act like you believe it or you will be viewed as an outlier. People feel compelled to participate in a matter in which they disagree."
Even though the Supreme Court has previously found that legislative bodies can begin a meeting with nonsectarian prayer, Lynn contends that the prayers in Greece are Christian, a premise which violates the idea of separation of church and state specified clearly in the documents on which America was founded.
Lynn contends that for 10 years, Christian clergy have offered virtually every prayer that has opened the town meetings in Greece. Research shows that two-thirds of the recorded 120 prayers contain specific references to Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit. During that time only 4 non-Christian payers have been given, two by Jewish laymen, one from the chairman of a local Baha'i congregation, and another from a Wiccan priestess.
In their argument, the plaintiffs contend that the sectarian prayers are also coercive. They say that the town meetings are different from state legislatures or Congress sessions, which people visit to observe from the gallery. Town meetings, however, are the only place residents can go to participate in their local government and serve as the only chance residents have to petition the local government to take action on matters that directly impact their lives such as zoning ordinances or requesting better neighborhood police protection.
In their legal position, the plaintiffs contend that if the Supreme Court issues a ruling for the town of Greece, it would be permitting the government to endorse Christianity above all other faiths, a move prohibited by the First Amendment, which states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..."
Lynn says that people should not assume an attitude of why should I care if a town in upstate New York wants to open its meeting with a Christian prayer. "Prayer does matter," Lynn says. "If you believe in a deity and pray to that deity, then it is not trivial".
The Greece v. Galloway case may prove to be only one wide-reaching religion case the Court hears this term. Legal experts think it may agree to also hear Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius. In that case, Hobby Lobby, a large craft retailer known for offering all types of craft-centric material, is balking at providing certain types of medical care for its employees, care that the firm owners contend violates their religious beliefs.
Hobby Lobby has 559 stores across the country and brings in $3 billion in revenue each year. It is owned by the Green family - devout Christians who believe that human life begins at conception and that using certain types of birth control is against their beliefs.
The Greens have asked the federal government to exempt their for-profit corporation from the Affordable Care Act's requirement with businesses with more than 50 employees offer health plans covering contraception. Opponents counter that the firm is trying to impose its religious beliefs on its 22,000 workers.
"Just because you have a do-it-yourself pink Pelican key chain, that doesn't make that a religious icon and that does not make you a church," Lynn says.
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