A Narrow High Court Win For Prayer Before Government Meetings

The Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 that the government can use Christian prayers to start town meetings, so long as legislators don't discriminate against non-Christians. It's a new chapter in the long-running fight over prayer in public places and on public occasions. NPR's Carrie Johnson explains what happened in the town of Greece, New York.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel. A major decision today from the U.S. Supreme Court on prayer in public settings. By a five-to-four vote, the justices ruled that a town in upstate New York did not violate the Constitution by inviting chaplains to deliver prayers before its meetings - that's even if the chaplains and the prayers were almost all Christian. NPR's Carrie Johnson has the story.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Two women - one Jewish, another an atheist - sued the town of Greece, New York for infringing on their First Amendment rights by featuring prayers at the outset of town meetings. They said town leaders overwhelmingly favored Protestant and Catholic clergy to give those prayers.

SUSAN GALLOWAY: Sometimes you don't feel very welcome. I don't feel like I'm welcome at my town government anymore.

JOHNSON: Susan Galloway is one of the plaintiffs. She talked with NPR last winter about her case.

GALLOWAY: My grandmother had to leave Russia 'cause of the Cossacks, my father had to leave Germany 'cause of Hitler. We have to stand up and make sure that our government and religion are separate because we are a diverse country.

JOHNSON: The question before the Supreme Court, whether Greece did enough to respect that diversity or whether the town crossed a line by embracing Christianity and essentially oppressing religious minorities. In a five-to-four ruling, the court's conservatives sided with the town. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy cites the nation's long tradition of prayer to open legislative proceedings. To prove a constitutional violation, Kennedy says, people need to uncover a pattern of prayers that proselytize or denigrate another religion. That wasn't the case in Greece, he says. But dissenters on the court point out that from 1999 to 2010, Greece held 120 town meetings. Only four of them featured prayers from non-Christians. Douglas Laycock, a professor at the University of Virginia, represented the plaintiffs.

DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: This is a green light for local majorities to impose their religious practices on their fellow citizens. And, you know, if Greece didn't go too far it's hard to imagine what town is going too far.

JOHNSON: But in Greece, town supervisor Bill Reilich offers a very different take on the ruling.

BILL REILICH: It's all about freedom of speech, freedom to pray to the god that you believe in without having concerns about censorship.

JOHNSON: Reilich says the town will go on praying before its local meetings the same way it has for years. People who don't like it, he says, can simply enjoy a moment of silence.

REILICH: I don't see how anyone can feel offended by somebody praying, whether it's exactly what they believe or not. They don't have to partake in it, if they don't they wish to not.

JOHNSON: Reilich adds that the town's open to hearing from chaplains of other faiths, but it won't actively solicit such views. Lawyer Thomas Hungar, who represented the town, says a search for diversity is not required under the Supreme Court analysis.

THOMAS HUNGAR: Towns don't have to sort of ensure an equal time opportunity for multiple different faiths. As long as people have equal opportunities to pray, there's no sort of percentage requirement that every faith get a certain amount of time.

JOHNSON: As for the words in the prayers, the court majority said putting courts and lawmakers in charge of policing language - substituting references to a generic god for references to Jesus, for example - would lead to government censorship. But the plaintiff's attorney, Douglas Laycock, says the U.S. Congress and many statehouses already have broad guidelines in place.

LAYCOCK: But trying to make these prayers more inclusive is not nearly so difficult as the court makes it out to be. Greece made no effort whatever, absolutely none. If they would simply instruct the clergy that they invite, tell them this is a prayer for all the citizens, not just for Christians, it should be broadly interfaith and inclusive - clergy know how to do that.

JOHNSON: Thomas Hungar, who represented the town of Greece, says the decision is a resounding reaffirmation of the right to pray and a signal to deter lawsuits elsewhere around the country where some residents might object to the prayers they hear at public meetings. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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