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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

"The local majority can do anything it wants ... that's what this opinion says," he said.

Laycock, who worked with Americans United for the Separation of Church and State in representing Galloway and Stephens, said it would be better "not to have prayer in the public part of government meetings."

By sanctioning "legislative prayer" at the council meetings, Laycock said, "it's a green light for local majorities to impose their religious practices on anyone who wants to participate in civic affairs."

Justice Elena Kagan, who led the dissenting bloc, apparently agreed with Laycock's concern about the content of the prayers.

"I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality — the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian," she wrote.

She chided the town's practice that led to more than a decade of "prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits. 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."

But Kennedy, in the majority opinion, dismissed concerns such as those voiced by Laycock and Kagan, noting the sectarian prayers heard in Congress during America's earlier years.

"The decidedly Christian nature of these prayers must not be dismissed as the relic of a time when our nation was less pluralistic than it is today," the justice wrote. "Congress continues to permit its appointed and visiting chaplains to express themselves in a religious idiom. It acknowledges our growing diversity not by proscribing sectarian content but by welcoming ministers of many creeds."

Kennedy also stated the purpose and practical boundaries for such orations: "Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function."

Religious reaction

While many Christian groups including the Alliance Defending Freedom, Liberty Counsel and the Faith and Freedom Coalition applauded the move, some strict separationists demurred. K. Hollyn Hollman, an attorney for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, which supported the Americans United case, told the Deseret News her group would be happier with a moment of silence at a town council meeting.

"I don't think it is good for religion to mix specific worship practices in participatory government meetings," she said. "You shouldn't have to participate in an act of worship in order to attend a local government meeting."

But Southern Baptist pastor Russell D. Moore, president of Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said the court did the right thing. "This is a victory for all of those who believe in the freedom of speech, including religious speech, as a prized part of our God-given religious liberty."

Harsh Voruganti the Hindu American Foundation's associate director of public policy, asserted the "decision is inconsistent with previous Supreme Court decisions preventing government endorsement of specific religious beliefs. Unfortunately, this decision may open the door to government sanctioned sectarian prayers."

The ruling may also open the door to further litigation, according to historian John Ragosta, a fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and author of the 2013 book, "Religious Freedom: Jefferson's Legacy, America's Creed."

He said the main part of the decision "is fairly sensible in a lot of ways: If we can have legislative prayer, government cannot be telling people how to pray. The government should not be in the business of telling people what to say in their prayers. There's a lot of merit to that."

However, Ragosta said, the decision "doesn't really resolve a lot of issues" regarding the content of such prayers, and he predicted the matter may come before the high court again.

But law professor Laycock disagrees, saying, "It appears to be a final curtain on any attempt to require some sensitivity to religious minorities in anything that can be called legislative."

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner

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