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Farmington Hills, MI, October 2013 — The SHJ has joined the Center for Inquiry, the American Humanist Association, Americans for Religious Liberty and other secular and religious organizations in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in Town of Greece v. Galloway. This case centers on the constitutionality of official prayers in local government settings, such as invocations at city council or school board meetings. This practice goes to the heart of our core interests in the separation of church and state. The Society is concerned with protecting religious freedom for all, including those who do not espouse a traditional religious belief, and for ensuring that our members will not be discriminated against by government favoring of theistic religion.
If the Court issues a broad ruling, the decision could have significant implications for church-state controversies involving issues other than legislative prayer. The 1983 Supreme Court decision in Marsh v. Chambers, which upheld the practice of invocational prayer in the Nebraska legislature, applied “common sense” reasoning, relying heavily on the fact that the First Congress had chaplains who opened legislative sessions with prayers. But the Marsh decision stopped short of an unqualified approval of legislative prayers by pointing out that it was not deciding whether prayers that were used to proselytize or advance a particular faith were constitutional. In a disappointing turn, the U.S. solicitor general, Donald B. Verrilli Jr., plans to weigh in during the oral arguments before the Court in support of the position of the town of Greece that its prayer practice does not violate the U.S. Constitution.
The prayer practice in the town of Greece, New York, presents a situation not resolved by Marsh, because only Christian clergy were invited before the practice was challenged, and most of the prayers were unmistakably sectarian in nature. SHJ Executive Director Bonnie Cousens explained, “for the Court to allow such a practice to continue would uphold government-supported religious expression, which is a clear violation of the First Amendment Establishment Clause.”
Argument in this case will be held in early November and a decision is expected in June.
The Society for Humanistic Judaism is the national umbrella organization for Humanistic congregations in North America. Humanistic Jews value their Jewish identity and the aspects of Jewish culture that offer a genuine expression of their contemporary way of life. There are currently more than 30 congregations in the United States and Canada affiliated with this growing movement. Forty-nine percent of the United States 5.5 million Jews say that their outlook is secular and forty-eight percent do not belong to a synagogue or other Jewish organization according to the American Jewish Identification Survey undertaken by professional statisticians under the auspices of the Center for Jewish Studies at the City University of New York. The Society helps to organize local congregations and havurot, creates and disseminates celebrational and educational materials, provides national programs, including programs for teens and young adults, and serves the needs of individual members who do not live near an existing Humanistic congregation.