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Supreme Court takes up question of town meeting prayer

WASHINGTON — In a case from a small upstate New York town that could have repercussions across Maryland and on the floor of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether prayers at open public meetings violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

The justices granted certiorari in the case Town of Greece v. Galloway, agreeing to decide whether the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals erred in striking down a legislative prayer practice as unconstitutional even though it does not expressly favor one religion and allows prayers to be delivered by randomly selected people from all of the town’s houses of worship.

Residents challenging the ruling claim that the practice amounts to an establishment of Christianity in their town because the vast majority of the prayers featured the words “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus,” “Your Son” or the “Holy Spirit.”

“Legislative bodies should focus on serving the community and stay out of the business of promoting religion,” said Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents the two residents of Greece, N.Y. who assert that the town meeting prayers are unconstitutional.

But the town maintains that the policy is nondiscriminatory, and any religious group member is free to participate in the invocations, which are similar to those given at public meetings across the country.

“The practice of legislative prayer is firmly embedded in the history and traditions of this nation,” said Thomas G. Hungar, a partner in the Washington office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP who submitted the certiorari petition on behalf of the town. “We hope the court will reaffirm the settled understanding that such prayers, offered without improper motive and in accordance with the conscience of the prayer-giver, are constitutional.”

In Maryland, Christian prayers have been challenged in Carroll County and in the Prince George’s County town of Brentwood.

In the New York case, A federal district court granted summary judgment for the town of Greece, finding that its practice was not an endorsement of any particular religious belief because officials invited clergy from any of the town’s houses of worship to deliver the prayers and the messages were not written or previewed by town officials.

But the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, holding that the practice amounted to the establishment of a particular religious belief because the prayer invitation practice heavily favored Christian invocations.

“The town fails to recognize that its residents may hold religious beliefs that are not represented by a place of worship within the town,” the 2nd Circuit held. “Such residents may be members of congregations in nearby towns or, indeed, may not be affiliated with any congregation. The town is not a community of religious institutions, but of individual residents, and, at the least, it must serve those residents without favor or disfavor to any creed or belief.”

The case has drawn nationwide interest, including from 49 members of Congress who submitted an amicus brief urging the court to hear it and rule in the town’s favor. The lawmakers, noting that sessions of the House and Senate begin with a prayer, said in their brief that its “practices are imperiled by the Second Circuit’s decision, which is just the latest and most deeply flawed decision in a growing line of recent legislative prayer cases.”

The case will be heard and decided during the Supreme Court’s next term, which begins in October.

Lawyers USA is a sister publication of The Daily Record.