Citizens should not be required to participate in prayers – let alone prayers that are faith-specific – in order to participate in local government, Americans United for Separation of Church and State told the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a brief being filed today with the high court, Americans United argues that many citizens have no choice but to attend these meetings when they are seeking board action on local issues or must take an oath of office or receive public honors.
“Town board meetings are often intimate affairs,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “If prayers are delivered in that sort of setting, it’s plain to see who participates and who doesn’t, and that can easily lead to coercion or ostracizing.”
Americans United brought the litigation on behalf of two community residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens. They objected to the Greece Town Board’s practice of inviting clergy to open its meetings with sectarian prayers.
The board does not require that the invocations be inclusive and non-sectarian. As a result, the prayers have almost always been Christian. Official records showed that between 1999 and June 2010, about two-thirds of the 120 recorded invocations contained references to “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus,” “Your Son” or the “Holy Spirit.”
In a unanimous May 2012 decision, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the town’s prayer policy. Judge Guido Calabresi said “a given legislative prayer practice, viewed in its entirety, may not advance a single religious sect.” Greece officials appealed to the Supreme Court.
The brief asserts that the official prayer practice puts religious minorities in a difficult spot: They can either betray their conscience by participating in a prayer that conflicts with their religious views or single themselves out by declining to take part.
“Prayer is a religious act, not a passive symbol or display,” argues the brief. “Here, citizens face pressures to observe and participate.”
Elsewhere the brief observes, “The great majority of petitioner’s prayers use overtly Christian terms, and many invoke specifics of Christian theology. Such prayers cannot be thrust upon citizens assembled to participate in their local government.”
AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, who directed the Town of Greece v. Galloway case for Americans United, said, “Americans United believes that citizens should have the right to participate in local government without being pressured to take part in sectarian prayers. We hope the high court agrees.”
The brief contains numerous weblinks to prayers offered before the Greece Town Board. It was authored by Khan as well as Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law, attorneys Gregory M. Lipper and Caitlin E. O’Connell of Americans United and Charles A. Rothfeld and Richard B. Katskee of the Mayer Brown law firm.
The case will be argued Nov. 6.
Americans United is a religious liberty watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1947, the organization educates Americans about the importance of church-state separation in safeguarding religious freedom.