December 2013 Church & State | Editorial

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Americans United-sponsored legal challenge to legislative prayer, Town of Greece v. Galloway, Nov. 6. Americans United and the plaintiffs in the case, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, were represented in court by Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia.

Laycock possesses one of the sharpest legal minds in the nation; he made a strong argument before the justices. Now we must wait until the high court announces its opinion, which may not happen until the end of June 2014.

In the meantime, it’s worth remembering why this case ended up in the courts.

Galloway and Stephens merely wanted to interact with their local government without first being compelled to take part in an act of religious worship. They believe, rightly, that their views about religion are irrelevant to their standing as citizens of Greece. They had no desire to be treated like second-class citizens.

When the duo raised objections about the prayers, they were told to cover their ears, leave the room or come into the chambers later.

Imagine doing something like that and then a moment later approaching the town board for a zoning variance, some street repairs or better lighting in your neighborhood. By singling yourself out as the person who didn’t want to pray, you likely prejudice your case.

Unlike the U.S. Congress, local government is actually close to the people. In most communities, the city or county council is open to anyone who wants to attend. Some towns even allot time for public comments.

When meetings like this begin with a religious ceremony, it sends the message that those who agree with the religious views expressed are the insiders, favored by government. Those who disagree are on the outside.

All of this is unnecessary. Greece used to open its meetings with a moment of silence. The city could go back to that. Another option is for town board members who want to pray to meet privately before the official meeting begins.

Conservative columnist Cal Thom­as noted recently that private prayers are what Jesus recommended.

“If individual members of the Greece, N.Y., town board, or any other legislative body, wish to pray silently to their God before their meetings, no law or court decision prohibits them from doing so,” Thomas observed. “Why would God be more impressed and more likely to respond to a public prayer than to a private one?”

It’s a good question. The residents of Greece and indeed the rest of the country need to keep asking it, no matter how the Supreme Court rules on this question.