Reason To The Rescue: Members of Congress, Scholars and Faith Leaders Voice Opposition To Coercive Sectarian Prayer Before Local Board Meetings

A group of 40 scholars of law and religion said that just because Congress has long opened meetings with prayers doesn’t mean the framers of the Constitution intended government meetings to be used for religious coercion.

Last week we told you about our disappointment that the Obama administration plans to side with the Religious Right in Americans United’s upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case involving coercive prayer before local board meetings. Today, we’re pleased to share that a number of high-profile groups are on our side in this important matter – including some members of Congress, scholars and members of the faith community.

This week was the deadline for allies of Americans United to file amicus briefs with the Supreme Court in Town of Greece v. Galloway. Fortunately we’ve got friends in high places, and many of them stepped up to explain why the court should rule that overwhelmingly Christian prayer offered before local government meetings is unconstitutional.

It’s a shame that the Obama administration isn’t with Americans United, but it’s reassuring to know that not everyone in the federal government shares the administration’s interpretation of the Constitution.

Twelve members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed onto a brief arguing that local board meetings are fundamentally different from sessions of Congress, which begin with prayers.

“The Greece Town Board is not a purely legislative body, however, and its citizens do not observe its proceedings in a purely passive capacity,” the brief argued. “Rather, the Board makes quasi-adjudicatory decisions regarding the property rights of individual citizens appearing before it (e.g., by granting or denying business licenses and zoning permits) and the citizens advocate their views directly to the Board on legislative issues. Private citizens are therefore active participants in Board meetings.”

(The 12 signers are Reps. Jerrold Nadler of New York, John Conyers of Michigan, Bobby Scott of Virginia, Ted Deutch of Florida, George Miller of California, Alcee Hastings of Florida, Robert Andrews of New Jersey, Michael Honda of California, Diana DeGette of Colorado, Mark Takano of California, Keith Ellison of Minnesota and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, D.C.).

Our opponents frequently cite historical precedent as a reason to allow sectarian prayers to open government meetings. In fact, the Department of Justice justified its support for the Greece Board’s prayer practice with that reasoning, insisting, “Throughout its history, and dating back to the first session of the Continental Congress in 1774, the United States Congress has appointed chaplains to open each legislative day with a prayer.”

But a group of 40 scholars of law and religion said in their brief that just because Congress has long opened meetings with prayers doesn’t mean the framers of the Constitution intended government meetings to be used for religious coercion.

“Many Founders, including [Thomas] Jefferson and [James] Madison, steadfastly opposed any official government religious proclamations directed to the public,” the brief reads. “Even those Framers, like [George] Washington, who accepted some form of government religious speech believed that it should never have the purpose or effect of endorsing a sectarian position or excluding members of the political community based on their religious beliefs, because such outcomes were also inconsistent with individual rights of conscience.”  

We’ve always said that the framers supported church-state separation, but it’s good for the high court to hear that (again) from a large group of respected scholars.

We’ve also said that this case is about protecting religious minorities as well as non-believers from feeling unwelcome by their own local governments. Fortunately a group of minority faith leaders agrees with us. A brief signed by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, Union for Reform Judaism, Muslim Advocates, Hindu American Foundation, National Council of Jewish Women, Central Conference of American Rabbis, Women of Reform Judaism, Blue Mountain Lotus Society and Rabbis Simeon Kolko, warned of dire consequences for minorities if the town of Greece wins this case.

“[C]itizens who wish to participate in their local governments could be forced to accede to overtly sectarian prayers that are not a part of their own faith tradition,” the groups assert. “Nothing would prevent local governments across the country from sponsoring prayers that ostracize religious minorities. It would be acceptable for local governments to invite prayer givers to offer prayers invoking specific Christian names for God, asking for forgiveness for sins, and proselytizing. Attendees could be asked to stand and participate in the religious ceremony by bowing their heads and saying ‘amen.’ But members of minority religious faiths should not be forced to participate in another faith’s religious observance just to attend a local-government meeting.”

In all there were 13 briefs in our favor, and we’re grateful for this support. Now it’s just a matter of the Supreme Court not only reading these wise words submitted on our behalf, but actually taking them to heart.