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Supporters of prayer at government meetings file briefs with Supreme Court

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 6 2013 7:20 p.m. MDT

Nearly two dozen state attorneys general and more than 30 U.S. senators have filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court, which is hearing its first case in three decades involving prayer at government meetings.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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Nearly two dozen state attorneys general and more than 30 U.S. senators have filed briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court, which is hearing its first case in three decades involving prayer at government meetings.

The high court has taken on an appeal of a ruling that found the prayers that opened Greece, N.Y., City Council meetings violated the First Amendment's separation clause since the prayers were overwhelmingly Christian, even though other faiths were allowed the opportunity to pray.

The "friend-of-the-court" brief attracting the most attention was filed Friday by 23 state atttorneys general, urging the justices to overturn the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The court should reject the assumption that the content of private citizens’ prayers before legislative assemblies is attributable exclusively to the government," the brief stated. "Such prayers, rather are expressions of private belief made in service to an elected body of citizens."

The filing by 34 members of the U.S. Senate details the history of the chaplaincy and daily prayer and expressed particular concern that the 2nd Circuit decision could put the constitutionality of many legislative prayers in doubt, Roll Call reported.

“This Court should eliminate the uncertainty and affirm the strong constitutional footing on which legislative prayer stands," the senators wrote. "In a nation of broad religious diversity, the best means of ensuring that the government does not prefer any particular religious view in the context of legislative prayer is to allow all those who pray to do so in accordance with their own consciences and in the language of their own faiths.”

The Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission also filed a brief, arguing that the circuit court's ruling makes judges the arbiters of which gods can be prayed to and which cannot, according to the Associated Baptist Press.

“Judges should leave the parsing to the parson,” said Michael Whitehead, a Kansas City attorney who helped write the brief. “There should be a wall of separation protecting praying citizens from a government-mandated civil religion.”

Current and former members of the U.S House of Representatives have also filed briefs in support of Greece, N.Y., as has the Obama administration, which stated: “Throughout its history, and dating back to the first session of the Continental Congress in 1774, the United States Congress has appointed chaplains to open each legislative day with a prayer.”

But Americans United Against Church and State, which is representing the two residents of Greece who complained the prayer tradition excluded non-Christians, argues in a story on its website that tradition doesn't give government officials the right to impose religious worship on a captive audience.

"Remember, not all traditions are good. Just because something has been going on for a long time doesn’t make it right. We are hopeful the Supreme Court will share that point of view."

AU reported that briefs in support of their view are due in September.

The court is expected to hear the case in October, according to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which also filed a brief in the case.

A statement from the religious liberty law firm said the case involving the town of Greece is the first time the court has considered the constitutionality of legislative prayers in 30 years.

“This case is a good opportunity for the Supreme Court to put Establishment Clause law onto a firmer foundation by rooting the law in the Clause’s history rather than the amateur psychoanalysis too often indulged in by the lower courts,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel with the Becket Fund.

mbrown@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @deseretbrown

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