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Legislative Prayer Backed in Ruling by US Supreme Court

Monday, 05 May 2014 11:05 AM

A divided U.S. Supreme Court gave government officials more room to incorporate religion into civic life, ruling that the Constitution lets a New York town board start most meetings with a Christian prayer.

The justices, voting 5-4, said the Town of Greece could continue its practice of inviting local religious leaders to deliver the prayer each month. Two residents argued that the town is unconstitutionally coercing its citizens into participating in prayers that often explicitly invoke Jesus.

The ruling is the court’s first on legislative prayer since a 1983 decision said lawmakers could begin sessions with non- denominational invocations.

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“Legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court.

The vast majority of state legislative bodies open the day with some kind of prayer, as do both houses of Congress. At the Supreme Court itself, the marshal calls each session to order with the words “God save the United States and this honorable court.”

The case split the court along familiar lines, with the four Democratic appointees -- Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan -- in the minority.

‘Equal Share’

Kagan wrote that the town’s practice “does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.”

The two Greece residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, said that over a four-year period, more than three- quarters of the town’s prayers were explicitly Christian, containing references to Jesus and often seeking audience participation.

The town, a suburb of Rochester, said it doesn’t shut out members of other faiths. After the two women complained, officials arranged for opening prayers to be delivered by a Jewish man, a Baha’i leader and a Wiccan priestess who invoked Apollo and Athena.

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A New York-based federal appeals court said the town’s practice “must be viewed as an endorsement” of Christianity, violating the Constitution. The Constitution’s First Amendment bans government “establishment of religion.”

The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway, 12-696.

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