In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court will decide if and when it is permissible for public meetings to open with prayer. This could be a pivotal case in determining the standards by which governments may permit religious expression in civil settings.
When may public officials open their meetings with a prayer? The Supreme Court will attempt to answer this important question in the new Term that begins on October 7.
The answer may be of considerable importance at many levels. Many local governments – from city, town, and county councils to school boards – will be awaiting the outcome to decide whether they may continue the practice of having a prayer at the start of their sessions. Others will watch the decision closely to see what insight it provides on the Court’s view of the scope and meaning of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Finally, the decision should be of interest to law students studying the First Amendment generally or in religion seminars more narrowly, or to those in local government law courses or doing internships with local legislative bodies.
Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, says that the First Amendment’s religion clause is first and foremost about “religious neutrality” not the free expression of religion. In his view, the driving force of the constitution ought to be that the government is religiously neutral in all its dealings. So when the Town of Greece opened the time of prayer before its meetings to all comers, Christians, B’hai, Wiccans, Jews, and even to humanists and atheists (although none of the latter asked to open the sessions), Mach believed this failed the standard of neutrality because the majority of the congregations in town (and the clergy who prayed) were Christian. So while the city did not require a religion preference nor did they vet the content of the prayer, this to him is not religiously neutral.
Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at the Becket Fund, which filed an amicus brief in support of the Town of Greece, disagrees. He says that the town passes “the endorsement test” in that all the people who prayed were volunteers and that they were not told what to pray…the town did not endorse one point of view over another. Instead, Rassbach says, his opponents wish to expand another test commonly used in church-state cases: coercion.
Rassbach claims that the case before the Supreme Court assumes “…that merely being present during a volunteer chaplain’s prayer, even with a right to opt out, constitutes coercion – would apply to all manner of government statements that citizen listeners happen to disagree with.”
So what do you think? Is merely being present when a prayer is uttered in a civic setting governmental coercion? Or do you think that the town was protecting religious freedom in offering everyone a chance to pray at the council meeting?
Is simply endorsement of belief, regardless of content, a violation of the first amendment?