Supreme Court to hear new case on religion in public life


The chairman of the local Baha’i congregation concluded his prayer with “Allah-u-Abha,” which loosely translates to “God the All-Glorious.” A Jew offered a prayer speaking of “the songs of David, your servant.” And a Wiccan priestess, mindful of her venue in the town of Greece, N.Y., thought that Athena and Apollo were apt deities to call upon.

But they were the exceptions. Almost every other “chaplain of the month” during a decade of town board meetings in this Rochester suburb was a Christian, and more often than not called on Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit to guide the council’s deliberations.

A federal appeals court said last year that such a “steady drumbeat” of Christian invocations violates the Constitution’s prohibition against government endorsement of religion.


Now, the issue is set to come before the Supreme Court. Next week — soon after the court’s marshal announces a new session with the phrase “God save the United States and this honorable court” — the justices will once again tackle the role of religion in the public square.

Few phrases in the Constitution have divided Supreme Court justices quite like the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, which says simply: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Some prohibitions seem obvious: There can be no official national religion, for instance. Government cannot compel Americans to identify with a certain religion, or any religion at all.

What has proven more complicated is defining the boundaries of religion’s inclusion in public life. Issues such as prayer in public schools, accommodation of certain religious practices, and the display of crosses, creches and other religious symbols have produced a series of constitutional tests for the court and case-by-case rules that please few.


Against this “messy” backdrop, said Richard Garnett, a law professor at Notre Dame, the court’s view on legislative prayer “is actually one of the clearer areas in the court’s Establishment Clause” jurisprudence.

The court decided 30 years ago in a case called Marsh v. Chambers that Nebraska had not violated the Constitution by employing a Presbyterian minister for 16 years to lead the legislature in prayer.

Former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger said “the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than two hundred years” of legislative chaplains weighed in Nebraska’s favor.


The very first Congress, which drafted the First Amendment, was led in prayer by a chaplain, and the House and Senate have continued that tradition since then. This is one reason that the Obama administration is siding with the town of Greece. The town and its supporters say there is no evidence that Greece violated the requirement, which emerged from the Marsh case, that so-called legislative prayer not proselytize nor denigrate another faith.

“This case can begin and end with Marsh v. Chambers,” said the brief filed by Greece, which is represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom.

That is what a federal district judge concluded when two Greece residents challenged the town’s practice.

text source: Washington Post


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