Everything You Need to Know About Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court Case About Government Prayer

This October, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case that could change the way we deal with, among other things, invocation prayers at city council meetings. It’s the first time in 30 years that the Supreme Court will consider a case dealing with legislative prayers. There are a lot of details to the case, leading to some underreporting and some misreporting, so I’m hoping this post offers a thorough, easy-to-understand summary of what’s going on so we know what’s at stake and why this is such an important case.

The Background:

Before 1999, the Town Board of Greece, New York opened its meetings with a moment of silence.

After 1999, at the insistence of Town Supervisor John Auberger, the meetings began with a prayer. Nearly all of those prayers were delivered by Christian clergy members. Furthermore, unlike other city councils, there was no requirement that the prayers be inclusive or non-denominational.

How did town officials select speakers? They used a list of local religious leaders provided by the Greece Chamber of Commerce… which, not surprisingly, was full of Christians. City officials later argued that they didn’t purposely try to exclude atheists (and Pagans and Wiccans and Hindus, etc) — they just didn’t have them on the list.

From 1999 through 2007, Christians delivered every single invocation prayer.

In February of 2008, with the help of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, town residents Susan Galloway (who’s Jewish) and Linda Stephens (who’s an atheist) filed a lawsuit against the Town Board and Auberger. They argued that these prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution and promoted Christianity.

Susan Galloway (left) and Linda Stephens (Heather Ainsworth – Bloomberg)

Once they spoke up, the town invited non-Christians to deliver invocation prayers at four of its next twelve meetings. But starting in 2009 till mid-2010 (when the case was being decided), the invocations went back to being entirely Christian.

(It’s still going on in 2013, by the way:)

The Initial Lawsuit:

The argument for the Galloway side was twofold.

1) They said the town’s procedure for choosing invocation speakers unfairly preferred Christians over non-Christians.

2) They said the prayers were unconstitutionally “sectarian,” meaning they promoted specific beliefs about God instead of being more general and inclusive. In other words, they named “Jesus” in the prayers instead of just a generic “God” that could apply to more people.

District Court Judge Charles J. Siragusa ruled that, while Galloway and Stephens had the right to sue, their side failed to prove that Greece officials were intentionally excluding non-Christians. Furthermore, he didn’t seem to care about the sectarian nature of the prayers, saying that they didn’t “establish” Christianity like the plaintiffs were arguing.

The Appeal:

When Americans United appealed Siragusa’s decision, they focused on just the second argument: That the prayers were unconstitutionally sectarian and effectively “established” religion.

In May of 2012, the United States 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled in Galloway and Stephens’ favor, with Judge Guido Calabresi writing:

We conclude, on the record before us, that the town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint. This conclusion is supported by several considerations, including the prayer-giver selection process, the content of the prayers, and the contextual actions (and inactions) of prayer-givers and town officials. 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.

The totality bit is important because it means the court recognized that Greece officials (at least in theory) would’ve welcomed invocation speakers who weren’t Christian; they just never sought them out as they did Christian ones, nor did they announce publicly that they would accept non-Christian invocation speakers.

The court added (problematically, in my opinion) that sectarian prayers probably would have been fine as long as the speakers weren’t just Christian. So in addition to prayers to Jesus, the city would have to allow prayers to Allah, prayers to Buddha, etc.

Overall, though, they ruled that Greece was promoting Christianity:

the rare handful of cases, over the course of a decade, in which individuals from other faiths delivered the invocation cannot overcome the impression, created by the steady drumbeat of often specifically sectarian Christian prayers, that the town’s prayer practice associated the town with the Christian religion.

To conclude, the judges made a few clarification statements:

They weren’t opposed to non-denominational invocations at city council meetings.

They weren’t even opposed to sectarian prayers, as long as it was made clear that these were the speakers’ beliefs and not representative of the town, and as long as non-Christians were also allowed to deliver them.

The Aftermath:

The Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom, unhappy with the Court of Appeals’ ruling, asked the Supreme Court to give this case another look. As with all similar challenges, this was a longshot since the Court hears less than 1% of cases it’s asked to look at. But you can try and make your case to the justices as to why they ought to hear you out (“petition for writ of certiorari”). You can get your allies to make the case, too (via amicus briefs). And if four of the nine justices are interested, they’ll hear your case.

Amicus briefs followed from the likes of Rev. Dr. Robert E. Palmer (the Presbyterian chaplain whose prayers were the subject of a Supreme Court case from 30 years ago — see “Precedents” section below), three Arizona state representatives, 49 members of the U.S. House of Representatives (all Republicans except for Rep. Mike McIntyre), a group of “theologians and scholars”, and officials from 18 states.

This past April, Americans United filed a brief opposing the idea that the Supreme Court should hear this case — they said it was already resolved by the Court of Appeals. And a rebuttal brief from Greece representatives followed weeks later, asserting that the case really wasn’t settled yet and the Supreme Court really did need to give this case another look.

The Supreme Court:

In May, after taking into account all those briefs, the Supreme Court granted certiorari to the case, meaning they would make the final judgment on the case:

As supporters of church/state separation, we want them to let the Court of Appeals’ ruling stand, though the fact that they took on the case, coupled with the conservative makeup of the current court, means there’s plenty of reason to be worried.

The Big Question:

The Supreme Court will now have to answer this question: Knowing that Greece officials didn’t openly discriminate against non-Christians or purposely use the prayers as a tool for proselytization, was it still unconstitutional of them to have all those Christian invocation speakers? (Doesn’t that give the impression that they’re promoting a particular religion and faith over no-faith?)

Or, in legalese, they’ll consider:

Whether the court of appeals erred in holding that a legislative prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause notwithstanding the absence of discrimination in the selection of prayer-givers or forbidden exploitation of the prayer opportunity.

Precedents:

As with all Supreme Court arguments, the lawyers on both sides will refer to previously-decided cases in the hopes that they’ll convince the justices that this is already a settled matter.

Two cases in particular deal with religion and government officials and are worth examining.

The last time the Supreme Court ruled directly on legislative prayers, it was 30 years ago in Marsh v. Chambers (1983). Ernie Chambers was (and still is) a state senator from Nebraska and he sued the state over the fact that legislative sessions began with a non-denominational invocation prayer offered by a state-funded chaplain (the aforementioned Rev. Dr. Robert E. Palmer).

Ernie Chambers

Chambers, who has since come out as an atheist, ended up losing the case in the Supreme Court on a 6-3 decision. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in his majority opinion:

In light of the history, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, a violation of the Establishment Clause; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.

The Court said paid chaplains and non-denominational prayers were fine because the whole practice was part of our nation’s history: Hell, the Founding Fathers themselves authorized the appointment of paid chaplains when they wrote the First Amendment. If they didn’t think it violated the First Amendment, then we shouldn’t think it violates the First Amendment, the argument went. It was originalism on steroids. The Court allowed such prayers as long as speakers didn’t proselytize and the government wasn’t disparaging or advancing a particular faith.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, the potential swing vote this time around, wasn’t on the bench in 1983 to decide this case.

Six years later, in County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, the Supreme Court suggested that sectarian prayers were indeed unconstitutional when they ruled that a Nativity Scene (and nothing else) inside a county courthouse basically promoted Christianity. Even “tradition” didn’t allow for that kind of blatant religious endorsement. This was not a clear-cut decision, though.

While five justices found the Nativity Scene unconstitutional, Kennedy thought it was just fine, arguing that if we allow invocation prayers, we must allow religious displays, too:

If Marsh… allows Congress and the state legislatures to begin each day with a state-sponsored prayer offered by a government-employed chaplain, a menorah or creche, displayed in the limited context of the holiday season, cannot be invalid. The facts that, unlike the creche in Lynch, the menorah and creche at issue were both located on government property and were not surrounded by secular holiday paraphernalia are irrelevant, since the displays present no realistic danger of moving the government down the forbidden road toward an establishment of religion.

If you’re the lawyers for the town of Greece, you like this ruling. You can make the case that invocation prayers are legal as long as you’re not discriminating when choosing speakers and you’re not openly trying to proselytize. And if your speakers just happen to all be Christian, oh well…

If you’re the lawyers for Galloway and Stephens, you’d argue that having only one religious faith represented in such invocations is tantamount to an endorsement of that religion. Indeed, the United States 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2011 that it was unconstitutional for the Forsyth County (North Carolina) Board of Commissioners to open their meetings with predominantly Christian invocations:

invocations must consist of the type of nonsectarian prayers that solemnize the legislative task and seek to unite rather than divide. Sectarian prayers must not serve as the gateway to citizen participation in the affairs of local government. To have them do so runs afoul of the promise of public neutrality among faiths that resides at the heart of the First Amendment’s religion clauses.

It’s also important to note that there’s a difference between invocation prayers you hear in Congress (which you’re not really pressured to participate in) and prayers you hear at your local city council meeting (where the pressure is strong). The Galloway side will undoubtedly argue that it’s important at local levels for invocation prayers to be non-denominational, non-sectarian, and inclusive of everyone.

Two other cases involving prayer and government entities may also come into play.

In Lee v. Weisman (1992), the Court ruled 5-4 that school officials could not invite religious representatives to deliver prayers at school functions, even if the prayers were non-denominational. Justice Kennedy wrote the decision for the majority (a good sign for our side):

What to most believers may seem nothing more than a reasonable request that the nonbeliever respect their religious practices, in a school context may appear to the nonbeliever or dissenter to be an attempt to employ the machinery of the State to enforce a religious orthodoxy.

We do not address whether that choice is acceptable if the affected citizens are mature adults, but we think the State may not, consistent with the Establishment Clause, place primary and secondary school children in this position.

How does that apply here? Well, those prayers were ruled unconstitutional because the pressure on students to participate was strong… and you could argue that same sort of pressure is evident at Greece city council meetings even if we’re talking about adults.

In Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe (2000), the Court ruled 6-3 that formal student-led, student-initiated prayers at school events (like football games) were also unconstitutional. Kennedy was in the majority here as well, concurring with Justice John Paul Stevens, who wrote:

The Constitution demands that schools not force on students the difficult choice between whether to attend these games or to risk facing a personally offensive religious ritual.

You could say that having formal prayers at school events pressures students into participating, just as the prayers do in Greece. If the Court said it was wrong 13 years ago, they should say it’s wrong now, too.

Preparing for the Oral Arguments

On July 26, the Town of Greece filed its official brief with the Court. Their argument is that the Marsh decision was right when it allowed invocations as a continuation of our country’s religious traditions and that their prayers were offered in the same mold:

To be sure, a majority of prayer-givers were Christian… But that fact does not support the conclusion that the Town exploited the prayer opportunity to proselytize or to advance or disparage any faith. Indeed, the Marsh Court refused to take that inferential leap even though the prayer-giver in that case was from a single Christian denomination and offered the State’s often explicitly Christian prayers for sixteen consecutive years.

Once again, the amicus briefs in support of Greece are rolling in. There are already about two dozen as I write this, but they include ones representing:

The official and amicus briefs for the Galloway side have not yet been filed; they have until mid-September to do so.

The Possible Ramifications:

The Greece side wants the Court to stop considering the endorsement of religion in legislative prayers (like when you have almost all Christian invocations) and focus on the coercive nature of them. So if the speakers aren’t openly proselytizing in their prayers, we shouldn’t worry about them.

If the Court agrees (in a broad, far-reaching ruling), we’d be kissing goodbye to nearly six decades of Establishment Clause precedent. This would be disastrous, opening the door to Christian invocation prayers at city council meetings — and even school board meetings — all across the country.

In theory, the Court could also rule (broadly) that legislative prayers are unconstitutional everywhere (though this is very unlikely to happen). If that happened, it would also put a stop to Congressional invocations, as noted by the House of Representatives members’ original amicus brief:

Congress’ longstanding legislative prayer practice violates all three factors utilized by the Second Circuit [in the Court of Appeals ruling]. The overwhelming majority of congressional prayers — 97% — are offered by Christians. The majority of these prayers include identifiably Christian content, including references to Jesus, the Holy Spirit, salvation, and Bible verses, such that they would be deemed overwhelmingly sectarian and therefore unconstitutional. And almost all of these prayers from the 112th Congress — again 97% — use first-person plural pronouns.

Unless Congress has been violating the Constitution since its ratification, the Second Circuit’s test is error.

The Second Circuit’s holding would thus invalidate Congress’ longstanding practice.

On the other hand, the Could may rule narrowly so that its decision, one way or the other, applies only to Greece. Given the conservative bent of the Court, this may not be such a bad outcome, but it would leave a lot of questions unanswered and lead to more court challenges in the future.

What do I think will happen?:

Who knows.

It could be a 5-4 decision with Justice Kennedy offering the swing vote, but I can’t even say which way. The conservative bloc on the court has said that the Establishment Clause is only violated if you’re being coerced/pressured into participation. Kennedy, unfortunately, seems to agree with this line of reasoning.

If you’re on the church/state separation side of things, though, you’re not really thinking about coercion. You’re thinking about the principle of this issue. You see Christian prayer after Christian prayer after Christian prayer at these city council meetings and believe that’s enough to constitute an illegal establishment of Christianity, whether or not anyone is pressured into participating. You hope the Court (read: Kennedy) sees it that way, too.

If the coercion argument wins out, it’ll mark a major crumbling of the wall between church and state.

I’ll be updating this post over the next month as the Galloway side and its supporters file their briefs.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • JWH

    When rounding up precedents, you might want to take a look at some of the other Circuits as well. I don’t remember all the details, but there is actually a substantive split between the circuits on legislative prayer.

  • flyb

    They should just argue that prayers have been proven to have no effect in reality, and thus are waste, fraud, and abuse by all government entities that engage in (or allow) such practices.

    • eric

      I believe that the courts have in fact ruled that imprecational prayers have no effect on reality. And, in fact, that the legal “reasonable person” would understand that they don’t work. That is why imprecational prayer doesn’t count as an assault – because courts have ruled that reasonable people know they don’t work.
      I doubt that argument is close enough to the main issue to make an impact, but it would make for an amusing few moments in court if the against- side argued it. “Your honors, since courts have ruled that no reasonable person expects them to work [cite case law], prayers by governmental officials on government time can only be considered waste and fraud.”

    • UWIR

      Who is “they”? It would be absurd to claim that prayers have no effect in reality. Peter Palumbo calling Jessia Ahlquist “an evil little thing” is something that happened in reality, and it never would have happened without the school prayer banner.

      • flyb

        They = the ones bringing the case. The existence of prayer obviously has an effect, otherwise we wouldn’t be posting here on this topic. But the act itself has no significant effect as shown in the Harvard study and others.

  • fett101

    Every one of these stories I read and all I really want is some Satanists, Muslims, Scientologists, etc to step up and give prayers at these meetings.

    • sam

      I agree, but even that isn’t enough. Why should prayer be the only superstition allowed to waste taxpayers’ time & money? What about goat entrail reading, tea leaves, & rolling dice? If newspapers are any indication, astrology is very popular and, according to Chief Justice Burger, represents the beliefs of a lot of Americans, so how about an astrology reading before every meeting? Great article & thoroughly researched, Mr. Mehta.

      • 3lemenope

        …so how about an astrology reading before every meeting?

        I love this.

        Everyone stands, and prepares to get all solemn, and then the reading begins.

        “[ahem] Sagittarius, you can expect to come into great fortune following a unspecified happenstance. Cancer, your hard work will pay off some day if you don’t screw up and are otherwise lucky. Libra, you guys are fucked…”

        • allein

          Hey, what’d us Libras do?!

          • 3lemenope

            You were born in late September or early October. Hey, I don’t make the rules, I just announce the predictions. :)

            • allein

              I was born on the very first of October, thank you very much! That makes me #1!

              • baal

                hrm, a palindromic birth day, 10/01. I think that enhances your psychic (side kick?) powers. We should totes have your visions pre-session.

                • allein

                  When I first started posting here I was ams1001.

                  On a side note, when I used to work in a bookstore I was the “unofficial editor-in-chief” of the store events calendar, and whenever there was an event involving a “psychic” (we had such luminaries as John Edward and Sylvia Browne because we were one of the lucky stores to get the big events) I would mark it to insert an ^ot after the H.

          • busterggi

            You know what we did, don’t pretend you don’t – we ALL know.

            • allein

              I have done admit nothing.

        • JET

          “When the moon is in the seventh house, and Jupiter aligns with Mars…” Thanks. Now I will go about my entire day singing the score of Hair.

          • jferris

            Thanks JET, just friggin’ excellent. Now I have that damn brain worm in my head….I hope you hear “Call Me Maybe” or some other such despicable tune right before you head to bed.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          My dog but this is great.

        • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

          *off key*
          That’s your horoscope for today yeah yeah yeah
          That’s your horoscope for today.

      • vincent findley

        Which is ok!! See how simple something like that is? Just like a recent ruling. Theists got to keep the 10 commandments monument and you Non- Theists got to put up your monument as well as any other faction wanting to put up there beliefs in the form of a monument. Just as the 6 words after the comma dictate, ” OR PROHIBIT THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF ” Instead of non-theistic factions filing frivilous lawsuits and wasting time and money.

        • 3lemenope

          Hijacking official business so that the less secure in their beliefs can parade a pageant of piety (of the general form: “Look at us, O God, Look at us! We’re important people doing important things!”) is not “free exercise”. It’s like saying that I’m not allowed to scream at the top of my lungs for as long as I want during a town hall meeting is an infringement of my right to FREE SPEECH.

        • sam

          That’s great. Since we’re just one more faith-based faction, you’d be willing to help atheist organizations fight for tax-exempt status? Are you prepared to lobby for government-funded humanist and astrology chaplains in Congress? I personally could do without the lot, but I’m curious if you carry your ecumenicism to its logical conclusion.

          • vincent findley

            I am willing. Atheists will never apply because if they get the exemption they will be admitting they are a religion. Something you all claim is not even though the high court says you are. Astrology bit of a reach there.

            • sam

              I doubt your sincerity, but it’s true that most atheists would never apply because, despite the potential financial benefit, they’re too honest to take advantage of the system. I doubt, too, that most fundies who spread that meme really believe that atheism is a religion. It’s just empty sophistry & rhetoric. If they really believed it, they very much would be fighting for tax exempt status.

              “Something you all claim is not even though the high court says you are.”

              I can’t follow what you’re saying here.

              “Astrology bit of a reach there.”

              Astrology is less of a reach than christianity. We have evidence that the sun & planets actually exist. We have evidence that the sun has a direct effect upon life on Earth, though not the effect that astrologers suspect.

            • C.L. Honeycutt

              SCOTUS has ruled that lack of a religion has equal LEGAL standing Constitutionally. That’s freedom FROM religion. Deal with it, Pissums.

        • UWIR

          If you theists would stop this nonsense, we wouldn’t have to sue. You’re the ones wasting time and money.

        • fett101

          I look forward to courthouses across the country with two dozen monuments strewn across the lawn while the actual purpose of the building becomes completely forgotten.

        • C.L. Honeycutt

          You’re claiming in another comment that non-theists don’t have this right. Are you dumb or dishonest?

          • vincent findley

            Where the f….k did I say that. My point all along is seeing your faction is also a religion use the same exemptions as theists and if we put up a plaque you all put one up. If we put up a monument you all put one up. Neither dumb nor dishonest dude or dudette. I want your faction to take it all, it will make mine and other theists arguments that much easier.

        • Bill Santagata

          The Free Exercise Clause does not grant people the right to put up free-standing monuments wherever they want on government property. For one, free-standing monuments on government property nearly always constitute government speech, and government speech must comport with the Establishment Clause (Pleasant Grove City v. Summum).

          The atheist monument you’re referring to was not placed by virtue of a court order. Rather, the County allowed a group of crazies to put up a 10 Commandments monument on County property. Normally, this would constitute government speech and thus violate the Establishment Clause. The County was able to disassociate itself from the monument by treating the space as a “limited public forum” whereby any religious group could put up its own monument.

          By your logic, the Free Exercise Clause would in all instances negate the Establishment Clause. The government does not have the right to freely exercise religion. A teacher, for example, could not share the love of Jesus Christ with her students in school, even if her religion commands her to do so.

          • vincent findley

            Which if the case is decided in a theistic favor, will pretty much negate your precious taken out of context, not in the amendment, from a letter and misinterpreted by the supreme court forever establishment clause.

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        Astrology readings… I love you so much right now.

    • vincent findley

      Which is what the high court will probably rule must happen. I think something like no harm no foul and as long as no one is forced to participate will fly. Things like the Cranston banner (not prayer) can go back up.

      • UWIR

        Are you seriously claiming that the Cranston banner didn’t cause any harm?

        • vincent findley

          It caused no harm at all for a venue that was used 5 times a year for one. 2, if your telling me a banner that was written by a 15yr old boy suggesting nothing more than being good to your neighbor, work hard to achieve things in life help your fellow man etc things like this are harmful , then you are a freeking moron.

          • UWIR

            I really don’t know what your first sentence is supposed to say. Your second sentence says to me that if your school had prayer, that time would have been better spent teaching its students how to spell (how does someone get a diploma without learning how to spell “you’re” correctly?). Now, on to the substance of your post. Did the banner suggest nothing more than “being good to your neighbor, work hard to achieve things in life help your fellow man etc”? No, it did not. Let’s look at the very first line of the prayer: “Our heavenly father…” Does that say “be good to your neighbor”? No, it does not. It says that God is “our” heavenly father. So, right there, in the very first line, there’s something other than your list of what it’s saying. If you don’t think that declaring that God is “our” heavenly father doesn’t encourage bigotry, then you are a “freeking[sic] moron”. Furthermore, the very fact that there is a school prayer in the first place, even apart from the textual content of that prayer, quite clearly sends the message to atheists that the community is willing to break the law just to hurt them. How would it make you feel if your school were willing to spend thousands of dollars simply to express their animosity towards you?

            Anyone with any sense at all who wanted just to express to students that they should “[be] good to your neighbor” could have just said “be good to your neighbor”. There is no need whatsoever for a school prayer if all you want to do is express that students should be good to their neighbors, etc. So clearly the school’s intention was not to tell their students to be good to their neighbors. If that had been their intention, the moment Jessica Ahlquist mentioned the fact that it was a violation of SOCAS, they would have said “Gosh, you’re right. Our main message was that students should be good to each other, and we would hate for the controversy regarding religion in the public arena to distract from the idea that students should be good to one another.” They didn’t do that. Why not? Because they have contempt for Jessica and all other atheists. It wasn’t about telling students to be good to each other, it was about sticking it to atheists.

            A state representative called Jessica Ahlquist “an evil little thing”, and she’s been the recipient of threats and bullying. These are things that never would have happened if the banner hadn’t been there in the first place. Furthermore, every time we have a violation of SOCAS, such as the school prayer banner, it sends a message that this sort of mistreatment of atheists will be tolerated. During hearings on the banner, people repeatedly made the “point” that since we have God on the money, something something school prayer is okay. Each violation of SOCAS is used to justify further violations. None of that sounds like “being good to your neighbor” to me. But I guess to a bigot like you, atheists don’t count as neighbors.

            • vincent findley

              Bigot like me? None of the Jewish faith, muslims, baptists, lutherans, protestants etc. etc. moaned and groaned. Are you speaking for them also, and like I said time and time again nobody on this site is bigoted? The use of terms like cheesus, jeebus and sky zombie(just to mention a few) is not bigoted right? A student, not a government official gave that to the first graduating class at Cranston West as a gift. So that’s all this 15 year old(not adult) student was thinking about when he wrote this? was sticking it to the atheists and the other faiths “uwir”. Are you freekin serious?

              • UWIR

                “None of the Jewish faith, muslims, baptists, lutherans, protestants etc. etc. moaned and groaned.”

                This makes no sense. What is this supposed to mean? They all believe in God. Why would they complain? And “No one else is complaining” is one of the most childish defenses to bigotry there is. “Gee, Ms. Parks, no one else seems to have a problem with riding at the back of the bus.”

                “The use of terms like cheesus, jeebus and sky zombie(just to mention a few) is not bigoted right?”

                No, mockery is not the same as bigotry. That you don’t get how the government saying that belief in God is a prerequisite of full citizenship is bigotry, and private citizens thinking your beliefs are silly is not, shows how arrogant and narcissistic you are.

                “A student, not a government official gave that to the first graduating class at Cranston West as a gift. So that’s all this 15 year old(not adult) student was thinking about when he wrote this? was sticking it to the atheists and the other faiths “uwir”.”

                The SCHOOL chose to hang the banner up. The SCHOOL chose to waste thousands of dollars fighting Ahlquist’s suit, just to show her how much they didn’t respect her. I was talking about what the SCHOOL was saying, and what the SCHOOL’s motive was, and it’s dishonest of you to try to pretend otherwise.

                • vincent findley

                  So if I call a homosexual a “faggot” Or a person of Jewish faith a “kike” It’s just mockery and not bigotry? Dude or dudette, I have to smoke some of that weed you’re smoking, because it’s really clouding up your cerebro.

                • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

                  No, that’s bigotry due to the history of power and privilege that straight people and non-Jewish (specifically, CHRISTIAN) people have over LGBT and Jewish people.

                • UWIR

                  How is calling someone a “faggot” mockery? It sounds to me that you’re the one who’s high. Terms like “sky-daddy” attack ideas. “Faggot” attacks people. It’s really quite disturbing that you can’t tell the difference between someone disagreeing with your beliefs, and disagreeing with your existence. By saying that my statements are so absurd that my brain must be addled by drugs, are you expressing contempt towards my ideas? By your logic, aren’t you bigoted against me?

      • Bill Santagata

        If you’re honestly expecting this Supreme Court decision to allow the two Cranston prayer banners to go back up, then you’re in for a world of disappointment. There has always been an entirely separate line of Establishment Clause case law in regards to public schools. The present case has nothing to do with public schools and the Supreme Court cannot issue rulings on issues that are not properly before them.

        A public school in the United States of America cannot have an official school prayer. It is absurd and obscene under the most basic tenet of our American philosophy of education: that public schools must maintain a “strict and lofty neutrality as to religion” (Abington School District v. Schempp).

        • vincent findley

          I won’t be in for disappointment if this case is decided in a theists favor. A school is a government entity, Therefore if prayer is allowed before these meetings and graduations etc. etc. as long as there is no coersion. Someone in our state of R.I. Bill will have the testicles to put that banner back up and start some new legal challenges. Have you noticed the ACLU hasn’t had much to say about this issue.

          • Bill Santagata

            The Supreme Court has already ruled that government meetings may start with a prayer, provided it meets certain criteria (Marsh v. Chambers). The Town of Greece case will almost certainly be following in the footsteps of the Marsh case, to make sure the correct criteria were met.

            What the Marsh case explicitly states is that its holding does not apply to a public school setting. That is not going to change with the present case. School-endorsed prayers will always be illegal in this country.

            The ACLU hasn’t said much about the former prayer banner because it is a dead issue.

  • Frazzah

    It’s just incredible that they can’t just keep their own private prayer sessions before those meeting. Why make it a part of the meeting in the first place.

    • vincent findley

      Because of the 6 words after the comma, ” OR PROHIBIT THE FREE EXERCISE THEREOF”.

      • 3lemenope

        Don’t tell me you’re one of those people who thinks that they can commit fraud without consequence because FREE SPEECH, or the press can libel without consequence because FREE PRESS, are you? Rights are limited by prudential regulations so that the right actually achieves the object for which it was established.

        Guess what, they didn’t write a free exercise clause in so that officials could preen at piety at a public meeting. That was not its purpose. It sounds downright Pharasaic to suggest that if we can’t have someone intoning a prayer before every meeting that free exercise of religion is somehow impaired.

        • vincent findley

          That’s where you are wrong! The founders were pretty smart guys if they wanted it any other way they would have included it in the amendment. ” or prohibit the free exercise thereof” except for invocations before graduations or prayers before town meetings and banners in high schools etc. etc. you don’t need a 4.0 to figure that out. Oh I forgot and monuments on court house property. Free means free!! with no infringements. One of 49 definitions in the dictionary, which are all synonymous. FREE, “clear of obstructions or obstacles” or how about “not subject to special regulations or duties” or I very much like this one ” exempt from external authority, interference, restriction etc. Pretty cut and dry.

          • allein

            Coercing prayer from a captive audience at a public school function by public school (i.e. government) officials is infringing on the FREE EXERCISE THEREOF of those students.

            • vincent findley

              Read my above response carefully allien and baal. If the high court rules as anticipated it will be a matter of your faction and others also being able to also open with their beliefs or you can choose not to participate. This was the founders intent with the 6 words after the comma.

              • allein

                I would prefer they open with getting to work. These people are not acting as private citizens. They are acting as agents of a government entity when they are at work. They can pray all they want on their own time.

                Also you could read a little closer and spell my name right, thanks.

                • vincent findley

                  Screw getting to work. Just don’t participate or send a non theist up and a muslim or a baptist up as the founders intended it to be. This had been done forever until your faction started whining. What tax $’s are being spent anyway when others get up n pray. You all better hope the outcome isn’t reversed. That will just change in a big way that separation of church and state not in the constitution and taken out of context from a letter.

                • allein

                  “Screw getting to work.”

                  Well, that says a lot about your priorities. If they are there to do a job, they should do their damn job.

                • vincent findley

                  They can do their jobs after the prayer! What’s a few minutes. Don’t participate, walk out and come back if it pains you so much.

                • allein

                  People should not have to leave a government meeting to avoid their government officials foisting religious practices on them.

                • C.L. Honeycutt

                  “Separation of Church and State” is a shorthand description of how the amendment was intended to work. It’s not taken out of context; rather, you are ignorant of or ignoring the vast amount of jurisprudence on the matter. What you are saying is that you believe yourself more knowledgeable about Constitutional law than everyone who has ever actually studied it. Anti-intellectualism at its finest.

                  Are you aware that the Constitution mandates a census be taken regularly?

                  Are you aware that the Constitution does not provide any powers to conduct said census?

                  Are you aware that the powers necessary to conduct the census are thus implied, despite not being in the Constitution word for word? No? Then you aren’t qualified to piss and moan about the Separation Clause, because you don’t understand the basic argument for it, let alone whether said argument is correct.

                  Projecting and writing bigoted things, as you just did, is a sign of you knowing that you’re out of your depth even among laymen.

                  “Send a muslim or a baptist up as the founders intended it to be.” Jesus Christ but you are ignorant if you talk about the letter to the Danbury Baptists as not representing the intended law of the land and yet say that the founders intended for Baptists to have equal opportunity of access to government. That was moronic. You contradicted yourself in your zeal to be bigoted.

                • vincent findley

                  And of course non of you all are bigoted! Let’s see I always see jeebus, cheesus, sky fairy, cloud zombie etc.etc. Free means exactly what I suggested it means and did you stop reading the letter after the words from the amendment. Tj also said to the danbury’s the only time government is to intrude in the matter of religion is when one is ” ill towards thy neighbor” they seem to have forgotten that part when interpreting intent of a LETTER. Far from out of my depth on the matter mr. or ms. honeycutt. you don’t need a 4.0 to figure the intent otherwise whether you like to hear it or not the word free never makes it in.

              • C.L. Honeycutt

                Your response completely ignored the Establishment Clause, and thus failed. Pretty cut and dry.

            • vincent findley

              It is not infringing, no one is being forced to participate. Just like the pledge of allegience you are not forced to stand and participate. Free is exactly as I stated above and what the founders intended.

              • Baystater

                If your choices are to be subjected to content that is biased as well as irrelevant to the context, or to excuse yourself, you are indeed being infringed upon. If town officials and citizens decided to attend strip naked for 1 minute each meeting, would you argue their right to do so because those who find it inappropriate are not required to strip and can leave the room? I realize that this example is not analogous to constitutional rights, but it does point out that freedom to leave or not actively participate does not equate to non-infringement.

          • C.L. Honeycutt

            Telling us that you’re unfamiliar with or ignoring a couple of hundred years of American jurisprudence and going with a “According to Webster’s…” response is not exactly a compelling case.

            A Young Earth Creationist once told me that there was no such thing as a vestigial organ because “they all have SOME use”. I explained that that was not the definition of “vestigial organ”. He responded that it was, and provided definitions of the two words which he slapped together to “prove” his point.

            I was burdened with explaining that he did not understand the context of the term, because “vestigial organ” had been in use since long Darwin’s voyage, and had in that entire time been defined with far more complexity than he wanted it to have.

            Don’t be like him.

      • C.L. Honeycutt

        Those six words protect the people from the government. Government officials are, obviously, part of the government. The clause, like many others, does not apply to them when they are acting in that capacity.

      • baal

        Governmental office holders acting as governmental office holder are acting on behalf of the government. This gives them certain rights and privileges but it also curtains their rights as individuals (when acting as the government). This is basic law 101.

        Further, the free exercise clause is not unfettered (and never has been). It gets you ‘reasonable accommodation’ in most cases. Specific States have additional statutes that say things like you can abuse your child and it’s not a crime so long as you do it in accordance with your church’s beliefs. Normally, your ‘free exercise’ right doesn’t include child abuse.

        • vincent findley

          We’re not talking about child abuse. Terrible analogy, free exercise means exactly that free. I guess my free exercise doesn’t include beastieality either.

  • Ryan Jean

    The issue with legislative prayer has rarely been overt coercion, such as the chamber’s Sergeant-at-Arms hauling you out if you don’t participate. Instead it’s the pervasive feeling that a citizen who fails to conform will not feel confident (s)he can receive a fair hearing or receive fair redress of grievances in such an environment. If the court considers that factor of coercion, the conservative argument withers and it is clearly an establishment violation. If the court refuses to address that, an establishment violation is an unlikely ruling.

    • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

      Yes. When you go before your local town council it is often because you NEED something from them: a special permit for building, an exception to the zoning laws, etc. and the LAST thing you want to do is start the meeting by sitting and texting/reading/etc. while everyone else they are all standing up together saying how they all worship the same god and that this god will guide their decisions at today’s meeting.

      There is DEFINITELY pressure to comply, and thus to feign worship, thus participating in a religious activity that goes against the conscience of the individual citizen.

      Yes, the individual can stand their ground and ignore the religious exercise, but it does waste their time to sit through this and it absolutely can have perceived and even real adverse implications against the citizen that fails to join in the religious exercise.

  • Bill Santagata

    The 2nd Circuit will be reversed 5-4, but hopefully not in a way that expands the holding in Marsh v. Chambers. Justice Kennedy, while being incredibly pro-SOCAS when it comes to school environments (this is fitting with his sympathy to the plight of children: see, most notably, his decision in United States v. Windsor), nearly always sides with the conservatives on SOCAS issues in other environments.

    • vincent findley

      I doubt that’s going to happen Bill from R.I. As long as no one is forced to participate, prayers at legislative meetings, graduations etc. etc. will fly.

      • UWIR

        Sitting listening is participating.

      • Bill Santagata

        Prayers at graduations have already been ruled unconstitutional (Lee v. Weisman).

        Being “forced” to participate in a religious activity is not required for the government to violate the Establishment Clause (that would be more of a Free Exercise Clause issue).

        Prayers at government meetings are generally constitutional provided that they meet certain criteria: either they are non-sectarian or the government body allows all religions an opportunity to participate (so a Christian prayer one day but a Muslim one another day, etc.)

        I have a feeling that the Supreme Court will find some way to say that the Town of Greece’s prayer policy didn’t violate those conditions, but they won’t change what those conditions are (as laid out in Marsh v. Chambers).

  • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

    I’m not a lawyer, but the Lee and Santa Fe cases are less compelling as case law than I’d like; I think both expressly note the principle that the scrutiny is heightened when dealing with kids in public schools.

    I’m afraid the odds on this one seem relatively bad, given Kennedy’s vote in Allegheny.

    • 3lemenope

      Not to mention that courts are especially loathe to interfere with the internal processes and practices of the legislature.

      • http://abb3w.livejournal.com/ abb3w

        Good point.

        There are a few local government bodies out there that serve both legislative and judiciary functions, where I imagine the courts might be more willing to interfere on behalf of a plaintiff facing judicial proceedings before the body; but the Town Board of Greece does not appear to be one such.

    • vincent findley

      Which makes you laugh. A nativity scene is an establishment of religion, but a Menorah is not. They must have smoked some good weed before making this decision and of course this isn’t anywhere near Christianity persecution right?

  • guest

    More waste of time, and money, arguing over a waste of time. Just do away with anything not pertaining to the issues at hand in the government/council meetings. Prayer, moment of silence, whatever. No need for it. Period. Rucking fidiculous.

    • viaten

      I’d be OK with a moment of silence in special circumstances but would rather see nothing beyond that.

      • Spuddie

        At least a moment of silence is inherently non-sectarian.

    • JET

      Where, other than in government, does any business insist on opening its business day with a prayer, invocation, or moment of silence? Or where, other than in religious institutions, would that be held as Constitutional if they did and insisted that their employees participate? Regardless of denomination, I find the seeming NEED to ask for divine guidance of any sort during business hours a violation of separation of church and state. If an individual thinks that they need divine guidance in order to do their job, then that individual should do whatever he/she thinks is necessary before actually clocking in.

      • busterggi

        Probably Domino’s Pizza & Chic-Fil-A open their board meetings with prayers – they’re run by Christofascists.

        • 3lemenope

          Domino’s hasn’t been run by “that guy” for many years. A side-effect of people being sloppy with their facts and accusations around the time of the Chick-Fil-A brouhaha is that many people still think he does.

  • allein

    “solemnize the legislative task”

    Why? Why can’t they just get to work? I don’t have to start my day by “solemnizing my analyst task” before I can start doing my job.

    • 3lemenope

      This way, if it goes poorly, they can blame Satan instead of themselves.

    • Carpinions

      Yet another example where someone forgot to stop and say “Wait a minute, why the hell am I doing this?”

  • C Peterson

    It reveals such a deep ignorance of the law to suggest that if something is found to be unconstitutional today, that means it was unconstitutional in the past.

    • Bill Santagata

      But that is actually how the law works…

      For example, when the Supreme Court struck down DOMA in United States v. Windsor as being violative of the 5th Amendment, that means that passing DOMA was *never* a valid exercise of Congress’ power, and therefore was never really in effect.

      • C Peterson

        No, that isn’t how it works at all. Until it was struck down, it was Constitutional. It became unconstitutional when the legal interpretation changed.

        • Bill Santagata

          You are wrong. While DOMA was *in force* from 1996-2013, it was never validly so. By ruling it unconstitutional, the Supreme Court has said that it was never a valid exercise of Congress’ power. Same-sex couples can retroactively amend their income taxes from prior years (http://www.investmentnews.com/article/20130626/FREE/130629951)

          Another situation that may be easier to grasp: When the Supreme Court struck down criminal statutes that put people in jail for being gay, they effectively expunged those crimes from everyone’s records. It’s not like the gay people who were rotting in jail had to serve out the remainder of their sentences because they were charged before Lawrence v. Texas was decided in 2003.

  • eric

    Where are the liberal secular Christians in all this? Hellllooooo, guys? You keep saying that these fundies don’t represent real Christianity. Well, step up then and represent real Christianity. Let’s see some amicus briefs by mainline church organizations supporting the separation of church and state here.
    This case is a perfect example of a situation where mainline believers and nonbelievers can be allies. If you will just step up and visibly be our ally.

    • Brian Westley

      Well, we’ve got Barry Lynn at least…

      • baal

        Looks like the Obama admin will back the pro-praying side. This is sadly a grim day for us.

        • busterggi

          Obama’s balls are much smaller than I’d hoped for during his ’08 campaign.

          • baal

            Wow, I need it to be the weekend faster. I was about to post a comment about balls waxing and waning but it was more about waxing your balls.

            • busterggi

              My balls or my baals?

              • baal

                Baal’s balls batman.

    • Beth

      Americans for Separation is a christian group no? I was raised in the United Methodist church and their official policy is for secular government. Unfortunately many members would fall into the conservative christian group. Maybe the UU church could get involved. You would think minority religious groups would want to get involved in helping this cause.

    • toth

      Obama is (at least I thought) one of those liberal secular Christians. He’s not silent, he’s actively against us. So I guess that’s where they are.

  • viaten

    I wonder if it could be required they accept applications from different groups for invocations. That way it might look more obvious if they were favoring Christians.

  • newavocation

    Hemant, you get an A+ on the journalistic quality and thoroughness of this posting. Thank you!

    • Humfree1859@yahoo.com

      Yes, excellent. Legal background?

  • rwlawoffice

    Very good post on the case and the issues involved. With all of the confusion around the country on this issue and what is or what is not constitutional, it is appropriate that the Supreme Court resolve the dispute one way or the other.

  • Everyday Atheist

    Thanks for a great summary! While the court may allow sectarian prayer to stand, it seems unlikely they would allow active exclusion of other religious beliefs. If it goes that way, the fight isn’t over. Secular-minded folk would need to start demanding inclusion as invocation-givers, and work actively to recruit people from non-majority religions to give the invocations as well. Inclusiveness would either freak the majority out and they’d stop the prayers altogether, or would at least establish publicly that other beliefs exist in those communities and deserve equal time.

  • DougI

    Gee, I wonder how Scalia and Thomas are going to vote.

  • edb3803

    “… Unless Congress has been violating the Constitution since its ratification, the Second Circuit’s test is error.”

    The Second Circuit in not in error. Congress has been violating the Constitution since its ratification.

    I would hope this was the decision of the Supreme Court, but I’m not delusional, like most of Congress (and the Obama administration).

  • baal

    The court could not see the voting fraud and disenfranchisement from 2012 in 2013 dispite reams of data that proved the point. I suspect they will look at the host of sectiarian prayers being given at secular governmental meetings and say, “see nothing sectarian here”.

    • sailor

      You are right, why should they? After all they think crosses are non-religious cultural symbols.

  • newavocation

    The history books got it wrong. Our founding fathers passed around a peace pipe before each meeting.

    • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com/ wmdkitty

      …wait. What were we trying to figure out, again?

  • busterggi

    I don’t trust the Roberts court to correctly decide anything regarding religion too many theological right-wingers.

  • Lauren

    In 2006 or 2007 the governor of my state (Alabama) came to my high school to lead a 9/11 assembly. The school had invited the father of one of the students, a local preacher (Baptist I think), to lead the school in prayer as part of this assembly. I don’t remember now if the prayer itself was sectarian or not. I had been an atheist for years at this point and was horrified to see such a blatant endorsement of religion. I looked around me to see if anyone else was surprised, but, of course, no one was. However, I trusted the adults to know what they were doing. “I guess it’s okay to have prayers at events, then, as long as it isn’t a regular thing.” I was disgusted but figured it must not be illegal. Besides, what was I going to do at that point, jump up and start complaining? Plus I thought the governor, the head of our state, would know the law much better than my high school self, so I assumed there must be some loophole that made the prayer legal, if not ethical.

    Now that I know better it makes me angry. I wish I had done something, stood up against it somehow. But even then, what would I have done? We weren’t told there would be a preacher and a prayer prior to going to the assembly. Nor was there was a point in saying anything afterward. The prayer was over and done with and I don’t think we had a 9/11 assembly the next year. But the fact that I trusted the administrators, state officials, and other adults to follow the law and treat all the students fairly and the fact that they very clearly did not do either and I allowed their unconcern for propriety to convince me that *I* was the one thinking incorrectly makes me so angry.

    • UWIR

      It’s difficult to be an atheist in this country without realizing that disregard for the constitution is rampant, and that one shouldn’t trust authority figures to do the right thing. And of course, we get called “arrogant” if we express this realization in public.

    • Ella Warnock

      Likely the only thing you would have gotten for your trouble was a vandalized house or car.

  • UWIR

    Well, those prayers were ruled unconstitutional because the pressure on students to participate was strong… and you could argue that same sort of pressure is evident at Greece city council meetings even if we’re talking about adults.

    There’s a Catch-22 about this. If someone is completely cowed into participating, they probably will be cowed into not suing. So the actual test cases tend to be borderline coercion, while the cases of outright intimidation never reach the courts because the victims don’t want to deal with the social repercussions.

    all Republicans except for Rep. Mike McIntyre

    I first read this as “they were all of the Republicans”, rather than “all of them were Republicans”. And I’m a bit confused at to differing numbers. Was the 49 Representatives brief asking the court to hear the case, while the 85 Representatives brief asking the court to rule in their favor?

    On the other hand, the Could may rule narrowly so that its decision, one way or the other, applies only to Greece.

    I take it you mean “Court”.

  • TnkAgn

    Too bad about the Obama Administration and its amicus. Perhaps BO will “evolve”on this issue as well?

  • John

    Hopefully the FFRF is directing resources towards this case.

    It is the most current high profile case. Pending the work against the IRS.

  • tsig

    Shouldn’t all the justices with religious beliefs recuse themselves?

  • Muba

    can someone tell me which part of 14th amendment it violates???

    • 3lemenope

      If you wanted a straight 14th amendment argument, then the obvious candidate is the guarantee of Due Process. A person cannot reasonably have confidence that their participation in matters of public concern will be treated with the basic respect due any attempt at participation if they are excluded from belonging via the public body’s sponsorship of specific religious expression which is anathema to that person. For example, Christians would be reasonably off-put if a public body to whom they were addressing or appealing decided to stick a Muslim prayer into the order of business every day; they would have good reason to believe that such a body might treat concerns brought by Muslims more seriously than their own.

      Of course, the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth is more usually used to incorporate existing federal restrictions enumerated in the Bill of Rights against the states and their creatures (which incorporated towns are). Long-settled SCOTUS precedent reads a separation of church and state as the most efficient and least dangerous way to implement the Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. That would work, too.

  • cakeeater

    This is all nonsense. The 1st says the government shall make no law Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. There for passing a law saying that we have to pray before meetings or we can’t pray before meetings would be breaking the 1st. It doesn’t matter what prayer is given. It could be something about worshiping satan. Just because someone is worshiping satan and you hear it doesn’t mean you are worshiping satan or are some how a part of that faith. All this is, is atheists trying to force their non religion on everyone else.

    • Asvaldr Williamsson

      I’ll just quote part of my response to another person: “I would really rather not have tax dollars funding meetings that exalt any deity. It’s not the time nor the place.” The funny thing is that I am religious. It’s not about atheists doing anything–it’s about people concerned over paying for unconstitutional nonsense.

  • guest

    I find it odd that people get so worked up about “prayers” to a “God” they don’t believe in? Seems a little odd.

    • amytales

      Maybe try using your imaginative skills a little? What if town meetings across the country were led with Islamic prayers, and you as a Christian had to either join in or just grit your teeth and resentfully sit through them in order to remain in attendance at a government meeting? I’m sure you wouldn’t mind.

    • Asvaldr Williamsson

      My oath is to my gods, not your deity or anyone else’s. That being said, I would really rather not have tax dollars funding meetings that exalt any deity. It’s not the time nor the place.

  • 3lemenope

    You’ve convinced me. I’ll rush out and pronounce my submission to Allah right away.

  • 3lemenope

    It takes a real winner to use aesthetic categories to deprecate another human being.


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