Supreme Court to hear case on prayer in public meetings this fall

Published: Monday, May 20 2013 11:00 p.m. MDT

In a public setting, allowing for multiple forms of prayer and religious discourse can serve as a vehicle for fellowship, camaraderie, respect and love.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — Rev. Father Elias Koucos, chairman of the Salt Lake City Interfaith Roundtable, looks forward to hearing the Supreme Court's ruling on prayer in public meetings next year. He hopes a ruling will initiate dialogue about the role prayer can play in government meetings.

In a public setting, allowing for multiple forms of prayer and religious discourse can serve as a vehicle for fellowship, camaraderie, respect and love, Rev. Koucos said.

"It's a good way to start a day," he said, "or any kind of meeting."

The U.S. Supreme Court announced Monday that it will hear such a case this fall. Town of Greece v. Galloway questions a tradition of beginning town board meetings with prayer in the upstate New York town of Greece, where city officials have regularly opened government meetings with prayers.

The city found itself in trouble — and in court — last year, when a pair of residents brought complaints against the city — not because the meetings began with prayer, but because city officials had asked representatives of Christian denominations to offer those prayers, to the exclusion of other faiths.

From 1999 to 2010, city officials began nearly every meeting with a Christian-oriented prayer. The only exception to the rule, according to the The Washington Post, was in 2008, when prayers were offered by a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess, and the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation following complaints.

Last year, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that requesting Christian prayers the majority of the time had the effect of affiliating the town government with a specific religion in direct violation of the First Amendment, according to Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog.

"The Supreme Court’s agreement to review the decision might be interpreted as an indication that the Justices could be preparing to make a major pronouncement on religion in the public sphere," Denniston wrote, "but it also might be understood as an intent to focus solely on the specific facts of the practice as it unfolded in this one community."

The Circuit Court ruling stressed that its decision was not based on the constitutionality of prayer at public meetings in general, but instead addressed the Greece town board's bias toward Christian-oriented prayers. It also stated that it was not adopting a specific test for when prayers are appropriate, according to SCOTUSblog's Denniston.

The Supreme Court's ruling is expected in 2014. This fall will be the first time the Supreme Court has heard a case on the constitutionality of opening public meetings with prayer since 1983.

Regardless of the case's outcome, it stands to impact believers and community leaders in Utah.

Members of the audience are regularly invited to share a prayer, thought or reading at the opening of weekly commission meetings in Utah County, County Commissioner Doug Whitney said.

"I don't think you could put a finger on what religion is represented," Whitney said. Rather, he said, inviting religious thought into public meetings reminds him that "we all need help."

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