RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Supreme Court today hears arguments in a case that questions the use of prayer at public meetings.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Thirty years ago, the high court ruled legislatures could begin their sessions with a prayer. But that ruling came with provisions: no attempts to promote or to disparage any religion, and no discrimination in the selection of the prayer-giver.
MONTAGNE: Since then, dozens of cases have tested the constitutionality of prayers at government venues other than legislative sessions, and gotten conflicting rulings in lower courts. Today's case could produce some guidelines for the future. It involves almost exclusively Christian prayers at the board meetings of one town in upstate New York. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Until 1999, the town of Greece, New York, opened its board meetings with a moment of silence. But when John Auberger was elected supervisor, he instituted formal prayers, given by a rotating group of clergymen, a group that until 2008, was exclusively Christian.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We ask these things in the name of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ...
TOTENBERG: Two women objected to the prayers at board meetings, and sued to stop it. One is an atheist. The other, Susan Galloway, is Jewish. Galloway doesn't object to a nonsectarian prayer, but says that prayers alienate people from their government when they're connected to a particular religion. She's felt uncomfortable, she says, when she does not bow her head or stand, as invited to do, during the prayer.
SUSAN GALLOWAY: Sometimes, you don't feel very welcome. I don't feel like I'm welcome at my town government anymore. My grandmother had to leave Russia because of the Cossacks. My father had to leave Germany because of Hitler. We have to stand up and make sure that our government and religion are separate because we are a diverse country. And we have to recognize that and protect the minorities' rights.
TOTENBERG: Supervisor Auberger is no longer granting interviews but earlier this year, in a PBS interview, he explained why he instituted and has fought for prayers at board meetings.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JOHN AUBERGER: Our Founding Fathers believed in the right for us to pray, and have that freedom of expression in prayer. And that's what we offer here today in 2013, in the town of Greece.
TOTENBERG: There are no guidelines for what prayers are appropriate, he said, because that would amount to censorship. So what if someone were to say believe in Jesus or you'll burn in hell?
AUBERGER: We could not object because our purpose is to allow a freedom of expression in their prayer.
TOTENBERG: The town of Greece has, in fact, gotten more diverse in its prayers since the lawsuit was filed in 2008. Among those who've offered prayers are a Jewish layman, a Baha'i and a Wiccan priestess. But still, the prayers are overwhelmingly Christian. Tom Hungar represents the town.
TOM HUNGAR: It's true that the houses of worship in the Greece community are predominantly Christian, and the leaders of those houses of worship that have volunteered to give prayers have therefore been predominantly Christian. But anyone is free to pray. Indeed, the plaintiffs in this case were both offered the opportunity to deliver invocations, if they so chose.
DOUGLAS LAYCOCK: Well, the plaintiffs don't want to give the prayers.
TOTENBERG: That's Douglas Laycock, who represents those challenging the prayers. The town's claim of equal access, he says, is a myth. The board never announced that all comers were welcome to deliver the invocation, nor does it publicize its policy.
LAYCOCK: The prayers here advance Christianity, and they proselytize Christianity.
TOTENBERG: Laycock, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School and one of the nation's leading scholars in this area, will tell the justices that town board meetings are very different from sessions of the legislature. The board meetings often include high school classes, community members who are being honored, and those seeking action from the board.
LAYCOCK: The way these meetings are structured, everyone is drawn into participation in the prayer. You're either part of the prayer, or you're visibly outing yourself as a religious dissenter. This is about protecting religious liberty for everybody; not just the majority, but also the religious minorities.
TOTENBERG: If the town wants to have prayers at the beginning of the meetings, he contends, it should have guidelines for nonsectarian prayers. But lawyer Hungar, representing the town of Greece, counters that the Supreme Court has said repeatedly that the courts should not be in the business of parsing prayers.
HUNGAR: Government is not supposed to be in the business of telling prayer-givers what the content of their prayers should be.
TOTENBERG: The history of this country, he observes, began with public professions of religion. Indeed, prayers opened the sessions of the first Congress, the Congress created by the same Constitution that included, as its First Amendment, a ban on government establishment of religion.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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