The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this morning, in a 5-4 decision, that prayers held before the Town of Greece Board meeting can continue and do not violate the Establishment Clause, reversing the opinion of the federal appeals court. The Supreme Court heard arguments last November, after a federal appeals court ruled that Greece violated the Constitution because nearly every prayer in an 11 year span was overtly Christian.
Justice Anthony Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas concurring. Justices Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan filed dissenting opinions joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
Greece residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens objected to the prayers that traditionally opened Greece town board meetings five years ago.
The Court last ruled on legislative prayer in 1983. In that case, Marsh v. Chambers, the justices found that states and other government bodies could employ chaplains at taxpayer expense to offer prayers. Lawyers for Galloway and Stephens say town meetings are different, because the invocations are being given not only for lawmakers but for citizens who are often compelled to attend in order to participate in local government.
The Town of Greece was defended by a group called Alliance Defending Freedom. The U.S. Solicitor General’s office was among the groups filing briefs in support of the town. Greece says there’s no difference between its prayers and the invocations protected by the Marsh ruling three decades ago. The town says any town resident of any denomination can volunteer to offer prayers.
Galloway, who is Jewish, and Stephens, an atheist, said the town gave special recognition to Christian ministers who delivered prayers.
Brett Harvey is a lead attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, a group which backs the town's position. He says this ruling will have a far reaching impact.
“The Town of Greece is the culmination of a nationwide campaign that’s involved scores of federal lawsuits challenging the way people pray; and this case will go a long way to resolving that.”
Ayesha Khan is the lead counsel with Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Her group feels the practice of prayers at meetings is too exclusive.
“If a community can invite clergy from the yellow pages, or other publications that list established congregations, religious minorities and non-believers will never appear at the podium."
Here is the U.S. Supreme Court's opinion: