Upstate New York Prayer Issue Goes to Washington

     WASHINGTON (CN) – The Supreme Court agreed Monday to decide whether town officials from upstate New York improperly favored Christianity by starting meetings with a short prayer.
     Officials in Greece, N.Y., started using a short prayer, in place of a previously used moment of silence, to open monthly Town Board meetings in 1999.
     Town Supervisor John Auberger, who typically would call the monthly meeting to order, added the invocation. At each meeting, he would have the town clerk call the roll of board members, lead the assemblage in the Pledge of Allegiance, and then would invite the “chaplain of the month” to offer a prayer.
     Two Greece residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, criticized the practice in 2007, saying the prayers aligned the town with Christianity since Christian clergy members most often were invited to participate. They also said the prayers that were offered were sectarian rather than secular.
     After the town responded that anyone could volunteer to deliver the invocation, a Wiccan priestess, a lay Jewish man and the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation were invited to offer a prayer.
     Up until then, though, the majority of prayer-givers were Christian clergy members whose names were on an internally developed list gleaned from the Greece Chamber of Commerce’s “Community Guide.”
     Galloway and Stephens filed a federal complaint in 2008, claiming that the town’s “chaplain of the month” list unconstitutionally preferred Christianity over other faiths, and that the prayer practice was impermissibly sectarian.
     Because the prayers were aligned with Christianity, the women said that the practice established a particular religion in violation of the Constitution. And because the language used in the prayers was unique to a specific religious sect, they claimed that it established religion generally.
     U.S. District Judge Charles Siragusa ruled for the town, however, after finding no evidence that Town Hall employees had compiled the list of prospective prayer-givers with the intent of excluding representatives of particular faiths. The Rochester court also held that the establishment clause does not exclude denominational prayers, which can add solemnity to governance, according to U.S. Supreme Court precedent.
     A three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit nevertheless reversed, highlighting the claim that Greece’s prayer practice had the unintended effect of establishing religion.
     “Ultimately, municipalities must consider their prayer practices in context and as a whole,” Judge Guido Calabresi wrote for the Manhattan-based panel. “A municipality must ask itself whether what it does, in context, reasonably can be seen as endorsing a particular faith or creed over others. That is the delicate balancing act required by the establishment clause and its jurisprudence.”
     “We conclude, on the record before us, that the town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint,” the May 17 decision states.
     “We emphasize that, in reaching this conclusion, we do not rely on any single aspect of the town’s prayer practice, but rather on the totality of the circumstances present in this case,” Calabresi added.
     The appellate judges took pains to note the decision does not bar towns from opening meetings with a prayer, nor does it require them to make invocations blandly “nonsectarian.” The decision does not say that prayers are permissible in theory, but clash with the establishment clause in practice, the court noted.
     “What we do hold is that a legislative prayer practice that, however well-intentioned, conveys to a reasonable objective observer under the totality of the circumstances an official affiliation with a particular religion violates the clear command of the establishment clause,” Calabresi wrote.
     “These difficulties may well prompt municipalities to pause and think carefully before adopting legislative prayer, but they are not grounds on which to preclude its practice,” he added.
     Per its custom, the Supreme Court gave no comment Monday on why it picked up the case.

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