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US Supreme Court allows Christian prayer at town meeting

Linda Stephens, an atheist, sued the town of Greece, New York, after complaining the prayers at council meetings made her uncomfortable

The US Supreme Court has ruled that even overtly Christian opening prayers at town council meetings do not violate the US constitution.

The court ruled 5-4 that the town of Greece, New York, had made a good-faith effort at religious inclusion.

They rejected arguments the council was violating the separation of church and state and should require prayers to be “inclusive and ecumenical”.

A dissenting opinion found the prayers were inappropriately sectarian.

Risk of censorship

Since 1999, the town of Greece, New York, has opened council meetings with prayers led by volunteer ministers from within the community.

In 2007, two residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, complained the prayers violated their religious and philosophical views, and soon after, the council invited a Jewish layman and a Wiccan priestess to give opening invocations.

Nevertheless, the two sued. A federal district court ruled against them, but an appeals court ruled the practice violated the US constitution.

In the Supreme Court opinion overturning the appeals court decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted most of the town’s residents were Christian, while writing that non-Christians were in no way penalised or coerced into joining the prayers.

“To hold that invocations must be non-sectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice,” he wrote.

“The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.”

‘Only one faith’

He found the council had made “reasonable efforts” to identify all the religious congregations within the town’s boundaries.

“That nearly all of the congregations in town turned out to be Christian does not reflect an aversion or bias on the part of town leaders against minority faiths,” he wrote.

In her dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the town’s practice violated “the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian”.

“In arranging for clergy members to open each meeting, the town never sought (except briefly when this suit was filed) to involve, accommodate, or in any way reach out to adherents of non-Christian religions,” she wrote.

“So month in and month out for over a decade, prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits.”

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