ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The U.S. Supreme Court in the fall will hear oral arguments in a case from upstate New York about the practice of praying at open public meetings.
One of the questions the high court may consider is what steps a municipality should take to ensure the religious diversity of prayers offered at such meetings.
The court announced May 20 that it would hear the case Greece, N.Y., v. Galloway, Susan, et al., a dispute that dates back to 2008. It centers on the constitutionality of prayers at the beginning of town board meetings in Greece, a suburb of Rochester.
According to background on the case filed by attorneys representing the Town of Greece, public prayer has been offered at town board meetings since 1999 by Greece clergy members who were invited by the town based on lists published by the Greece Chamber of Commerce and by a local newspaper.
The houses of worship located in Greece are predominantly Christian. As a result, a majority of the invocations offered from 1999 to 2010 contained Christian references, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonpartisan, nonsectarian group that is representing plaintiffs Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, who are Greece residents.
"A town council meeting isn't a church service, and it shouldn't seem like one," said a statement from the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. "Government can't serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others. That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion."
Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization founded in 1994 that advocates for the religious liberty of Americans and people around the world, contends that the town did not regulate the content of the prayers, permitted citizens of any religious tradition – or no tradition – to volunteer to say prayers, and did not discriminate in who was selected as "prayer-givers." Alliance Defending Freedom is representing the Town of Greece on a pro bono basis.
In May 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit struck down the town's prayer policy and recommended potential changes. Among those recommendations was that Greece should invite non-Christians from outside the town's borders to pray at its town meetings and take steps to ensure that the prayers said were nonsectarian.
Alliance Defending Freedom asked the Supreme Court in December 2012 to review the case, noting that in the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers the court had affirmed the constitutionality of prayers offered according to the conscience of the speaker before public meetings.
"Americans today should be as free as the Founders were to pray," said a statement from David Cortman, the alliance's senior counsel. "The Founders prayed while drafting our Constitution's Bill of Rights, and the Supreme Court has ruled that public prayer is part of the 'history and tradition of this country.' America continues this cherished practice."
Kotlarz is a reporter at the Catholic Courier, newspaper of the Diocese of Rochester, N.Y.