New York Town Focus of Rare Supreme Court Religion Case

GREECE, N.Y. (Bloomberg) -

On a sultry July evening, Supervisor John Auberger began the Greece, N.Y., town board meeting in his usual way: He invited a Christian clergyman to deliver a blessing.

The solemn prayers are now the focus of a Supreme Court fight that may reshape the legal limits on religious expression at official functions nationwide. The case will mark the first time the court has considered legislative prayer since upholding the practice 30 years ago.

Two residents of the Rochester suburb have waged a five-year campaign, arguing that the town is going beyond what the justices allowed in 1983, violating the Constitution by endorsing Christianity.

“Government should be inclusive,” said Susan Galloway, 51, one of the women challenging the practice. “There are people who don’t believe, and they’re part of this country, too. We all have a right to be part of it and not feel excluded.”

The town rejects their complaint, arguing that it hasn’t shut out members of other faiths. Officials say the opening prayer has been delivered by a Jewish man, a Bahai leader and a pagan.

Supporters say legislative prayer has been a widespread practice since the country’s founding and was not barred under the establishment clause. The vast majority of state legislative bodies open the day with some kind of prayer, as do both houses of Congress.

“It’s part of our historical tradition and the fabric of our country,” said Vince DiPaola, the founder of a Greece congregation.

Before Auberger became supervisor in 1998, the town began meetings with a moment of silence. Prayers started the following year, though it wasn’t until 2007 that the practice became a public controversy. Galloway, who is Jewish, said she grew uncomfortable after repeatedly hearing Christian prayers while attending board meetings. She says she was told that she could leave the room during invocation.

Galloway and others sued in February 2008, saying the town was “sponsoring persistent sectarian — and almost exclusively Christian — prayers.”

The New York-based 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the town’s prayer practice “must be viewed as an endorsement” of Christianity, violating the Constitution. But the town contends the “endorsement test” doesn’t apply to legislative-prayer cases.

Such a test “requires courts to parse prayers’ content and thus inevitably forces courts to play the role of theologian, making judgments about the prayers’ validity based on the supposed religious effect they are likely to have on observers,” the town argued in court papers.