On May 17, 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit (Galloway v. Town of Greece, 0-3635-cv) ruled that the town of Greece, New York violated the U.S. Constitution by opening meetings with prayers that favored Christianity over other religions.
Linda Galloway and Linda Stephens filed suit in 2008 claiming that the town’s prayer practice affiliated the town with the single creed of Christianity in violation of the Establishment Clause. The district court dismissed granted summary judgment against Galloway and Stephens. The 2nd Circuit overturned the summary judgment and remanded the case to the lower courts.
In this ruling, the Second Circuit did not preclude prayer, but noted that even though prayers may be offered with the best of intentions, those giving them may attempt to “convey their views of religious truth, and thereby run the risk of making others feel like outsiders.”
The court set what appears to be a new standard for determining whether a prayer, or pattern of prayers, is appropriate.
Justice Guido Calabresi wrote for the majority.
“What we do hold is that a legislative prayer practice that, however well-intentioned, conveys to a reasonable objective observer under the totality of the circumstances an official affiliation with a particular religion violates the clear command of the Establishment Clause. Where the overwhelming predominance of prayers offered are associated, often in an explicitly sectarian way, with a particular creed, and where the town takes no steps to avoid the identification, but rather conveys the impression that town officials themselves identify with the sectarian prayers and that residents in attendance are expected to participate in them, a reasonable objective observer would perceive such an affiliation.”
The court also was not impressed by the town’s claim that it would have accommodated volunteers from other faiths since the town “neither publicly solicited volunteers to deliver invocations nor informed members of the general public that volunteers would be considered or accepted, let alone welcomed, regardless of their religious beliefs or non-beliefs.”
The Galloway court referenced the Supreme Court case Marsh v. Chambers., 463 U.S. 783 (1983) where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Nebraska Legislature did not violate the establishment clause by opening its sessions with prayer as it was “simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”
The Alliance Defense Fund, which had argued for the Town of Greece, is currently deciding whether or not to appeal the decision either by petitioning the Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari or asking the full circuit to rehear the case en banc. The appeal would be based on the idea that the town should not need to take additional steps, such as calling for volunteers, to insure compliance with the Constitution.
This decision appears to be a rare win-win where the town can continue to have prayers offered, but needs to be more proactive in making sure that the opportunity is made available to a wider range of faith groups.
Prayer is a way to reach for the Divine in reverence and should not be a launching point for an argument. After 2,000 years, there is still wisdom in these words:
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:5-6 (NIV).