Several Atheist Groups File Joint Amicus Brief for Supreme Court Prayer Case

You’re going to see a few of these coming down the pipeline in the next few days. With the oral arguments for Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court case that could decide the fate of government invocation prayers, taking place in just over a month, pro-church/state separation groups are beginning to file their briefs in support of the Galloway side.

(If you need a refresher on what the heck I’m talking about, just check out this post, some of which I’m reposting below.)

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

Yesterday, a joint brief was filed by a number of groups, including the Center for Inquiry, Americans for Religious Liberty, and the various members of the Secular Coalition for America (including American Atheists, American Ethical Union, American Humanist Association, the Institute for Humanist Studies, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, Secular Student Alliance, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism).

The focus of the brief in almost entirely on the last Supreme Court case to deal with government prayer: Marsh v. Chambers.

In 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.

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.

That brings us back to the amicus brief. CFI and its allies are saying the justices should rethink the decision in Marsh. It was wrongly decided then, and it shouldn’t be used as a precedent for keeping Christian invocation prayers now:

First, experience belies Marsh’s foundational premise that sectarian legislative-body prayer is essentially a harmless ceremonial practice which harmonizes with our nation’s widely held religious beliefs. To the contrary, this country’s experience with deliberative-body prayers since Marsh has been turbulent and divisive. Deliberative-body prayer can foster exclusion and harassment of minority groups, political disruption, and even violence directed at those who object to state-sponsored religious worship.

It’s hard to argue with that. If you’ve been following lawsuits and complaints involving invocations over the past several years, you know the drill by now. A Christian City Council wants to implement Christian prayers for the Christian majority. The problems occur whenever someone else wants to join in or put a stop to the sectarian divisiveness.

The other issue brought up in the brief is that our society is more religiously diverse now that it was 30 years ago when Marsh was decided, meaning that there’s “no basis in today’s society to presume that deliberative-body prayer practices will widely harmonize rather than conflict with the religious beliefs of community residents.”

As a result, the world in which Marsh deemed legislative prayer “a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country,”… does not exist today. In recent years, deliberative-body prayer practices have proved deeply divisive, and that trend is bound to continue as communities include more residents who adhere to minority religions, are atheist or agnostic, or hold individual religious beliefs not affiliated with any organized religion. Petitioner’s argument that Marsh should shield deliberative-body prayer practices from genuine scrutiny ignores these realities.

Finally, the brief argues that subsequent Supreme Court decisions dealing with religion all point away from this notion that sectarian prayers at government meetings are a good idea.

It may be hard for Christians — especially politically conservative ones — to understand how true all of this is. You don’t notice these things when you’re in the majority. But those of us who have seen the battle from the other side know damn well how Christians have used the law to promote themselves and their faith over the rest of us.

The Supreme Court needs to do the right thing and let the Appeals Court’s ruling stand. Let’s do away with these sectarian prayers once and for all.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

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

    Other amicus briefs (of those which look likely to also support the respondents) have been filed by the “Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty” ,”Law Professors”, “Erwin Chemerinsky and Alan Brownstein”, and “Political Scientists”.

    The first of these is available on the web as a PDF Download; the others so far seem to need a Westlaw subscription or similar.

    Most of the amicus briefs supporting the town are available via the SCOTUSblog page on the case filings.

    • islandbrewer

      I definitely want to read Chemerinsky’s brief. He’s always been really succinct an thorough.

  • the moother

    Dentists are set to make millions from all the teeth gnashing. New dentures will be all the rage amongst christians.

  • TychaBrahe

    I really wonder about people sometimes. Namely, why would you elect someone to a job who doesn’t feel s/he can do the job unless a deity intercedes. Wouldn’t you prefer someone who knows what s/he is doing him/herself?

    • James Stevenson

      Indeed. For all the anguish over prayer being so important… what’s the distinction between having an elected representative and just sitting a clergy up there to do it? It’s all rather selective.

  • flyb

    I don’t see these religious Supremes making a decision in our favor. I really hope they do, but my faith in them is pretty weak.

  • Iron Hat

    Mark my words; the Supreme Court took this case simply to reaffirm and uphold the Marsh ruling. I truly believe this. If you doubt that, look back at the last ten years worth of cases and take a realistic look at how the court’s majority thinks. You’ll have your sad answer. Even when they do the “secular”, fair, and logical thing, “in part”, as in the Windsor case, they almost always stop short of going all the way.

  • Brian Westley

    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.

    But the guy who wrote the first amendment did think the appointment of paid chaplains violated the first amendment:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaplain_of_the_United_States_House_of_Representatives

    Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?

    In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes.

  • Highlander

    Hard not to say that the post of Chaplain in the US congress does not establish religion when all of the 122 men who have occupied that post have been Christian of some sect or other. Oh sure they have guest chaplains who come in that may not be Christian, as can be seen in this lovely video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4XiizB9Lkqk which shows just how entitled the fundies feel they are to having their religion as the only one established by Congress. If the Court does not rule for the respondents that will once again show just how established Christianity is within our government, it will show that even an “impartial” Court has been corrupted.

  • Kent Mason

    Interesting. For 90 years, they didn’t think that slavery violated the Constitution either. Or preventing women from voting or setting on juries for 150 years. The argument of, “Well, our Founding Fathers didn’t believe that it violated the Constitution” just wont cut it anymore.


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