Divided Supreme Court OKs prayer before public meetings

Decision could signal a major shift in the role of religion in the public square

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In the beginning

The case began in 2008 when Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit against the town of Greece, a suburb of Rochester with more than 90,000 residents, on behalf of Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens.

Ms. Galloway, who is Jewish, and Ms. Stephens, an atheist, protested that only Christians were delivering prayers at town council meetings.

Town leaders countered that they provided the opportunity for anyone to lead the opening prayer at the government meeting regardless of their religion or lack thereof — a practice that dates back to the nation’s founding.

“The Congress that drafted the First Amendment would have been accustomed to invocations containing explicitly religious themes of the sort respondents find objectionable,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable.”

Opponents warned that the decision could set a troubling precedent.

Justice Elena Kagan, joined by the court’s other liberal justices, said in her dissent that the town failed to “involve, accommodate, or in any way reach out to adherents of non-Christian religions.”

“So month in and month out for over a decade, prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits,” Justice Kagan wrote. “In my view, that practice does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.”

“The Supreme Court just relegated millions of Americans — both believers and nonbelievers — to second-class citizenship,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “Government should not be in the business of forcing faith on anyone, and now all who attend meetings of their local boards could be subjected to the religion of the majority.”

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