The Supreme Court said Monday it has agreed to review an appeals court ruling, which held that the Greece, a town near Rochester, New York, violated the Constitution by opening nearly every meetings with Christian prayers.
Since 1999, the town board began its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month.” Town officials said that members of all faiths and atheists were welcome to give the opening prayer.
Last year, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled that the town should have made a greater effort to invite people from other faiths to open its monthly board meetings.
"In practice, Christian clergy members have delivered nearly all of the prayers relevant to this litigation and have done so at the town’s invitation," the appeals court said last year.
“A substantial majority of the prayers in the record contained uniquely Christian language,” Judge Guido Calabresi wrote to a unanimous three-judge panel of the court. "Roughly two-thirds contained references to ‘Jesus Christ,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘Your Son’ or the ‘Holy Spirit.' Within this subset, almost all concluded with a statement that the prayer had been given in Jesus Christ's name."
Two town residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, who are not Christian complained that they felt marginalized by the steady stream of Christian prayers and challenged the practice. They are sponsored by Americans United for Separation of Church and State for the lawsuit.
"A town council meeting isn’t a church service, and it shouldn’t seem like one,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the group behind the lawsuit. "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."
The town defended its prayer policy, saying it was neutral and nondiscriminatory. It is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based Christian non-profit group that presses faith-based cases in courts nationwide. ADF senior counsel David Cortman said the framers of the Constitution prayed while drafting the Bill of Rights.
"Americans today should be as free as the Founders were to pray," Cortman stated.
The court will hear the case in the fall.