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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.