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Supreme Court endorsed legislative prayer for second time in 30 years

Published: Tuesday, May 6 2014 6:40 a.m. MDT

Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck, of Faith and Action, right, prays in front of the Supreme Court with Raymond Moore, center and Patty Bills, both also of Faith and Action, during a news conference, Monday, May 5, 2014, in Washington, after speaking in favor of the ruling by the court's conservative majority that was a victory for the town of Greece, N.Y., outside of Rochester. A narrowly divided Supreme Court upheld decidedly Christian prayers at the start of local council meetings on Monday, declaring them in line with long national traditions though the country has grown more religiously diverse.

Carolyn Kaster, Associated Press

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WASHINGTON – The 5-4 Supreme Court decision Monday upholding prayers at local government meetings pleased supporters who cheered the second endorsement of "legislative prayers" in 30 years as a victory for freedom of speech.

But opponents said the ruling could impose "second-class citizenship" on those who don't share the dominant faith of a given community.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that government could not mandate a legislative prayer "to a generic God" to avoid offending someone in the room. He added that unless legislative prayers show a pattern of proselytizing or denigration of other faiths "a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation."

The decision caps the contentious case of Town of Greece vs. Galloway, in which two residents of the small New York town eight miles northwest of Rochester, complained that only four of 127 "guest chaplains" opening town meetings with prayer were not Christians.

Residents Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, each objected to the imbalance, and allege they were told either to stop attending meetings or "not listen" to the prayers. A federal appeals court in New York held the prayers to be unconstitutional and the town appealed.

Monday's ruling comes more than three decades after a 1983 case, Marsh v. Chambers, where the court held that the Nebraska Legislature's custom of opening meetings with prayers by a paid chaplain did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which says the state may not "establish" a religion "or prohibit the free exercise thereof."

'Legislative prayer' victory

Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which supported the Town of Greece in the case, applauded the latest ruling.

"Both the majority opinion and the dissenting opinion affirm legislative prayer is constitutional," he said. "At a very high level, today's opinion is a unanimous victory for legislative prayer, a time-honored tradition of allowing government to reflect the beliefs of its citizens."

Blomberg said those who opposed the Town of Greece's prayer policy "want you to create this majoritarian definition of prayer that has to be the way everyone prays. It was an attack on the diverse policy the Town of Greece has: they invited everyone to pray and never refused anyone from participating." He said opponents were "asking for government-mandated type of prayers, and the court soundly rejected that."

In referencing "legislative prayer," the ruling says nothing concerning other controversial public prayers that have landed in court, such as those offered at public school football games or public high school graduations.

But Blomberg said that the reasoning in Monday's ruling about the role of faith in public life could impact another controversial case, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. In that case, the Green family, which owns the national craft store chain, is seeking exemption from a government contraceptive mandate, which the family says is against its religious beliefs.

"What the Green family is asking is for the (Supreme) Court to recognize the same thing it did in (the) Town of Greece (case), that the government should not be hostile to religion, and recognize that religion is a fundamental part of what citizens are," Blomberg said.

Minority religions ignored?

But not all religious freedom advocates liked the court's latest legislative prayer ruling.

Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and who argued the case for Galloway and Stephens before the high court, said the ruling doesn't bode well for minority religions.

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