High court to weigh in on legislative prayers

WASHINGTON — Local officials are turning their attention to Washington after the Supreme Court said Monday it will hear a new case on the intersection of religion and government in a dispute over prayers used to open public meetings.

The justices said they will review an appeals court ruling that held that the upstate New York town of Greece, a Rochester suburb, violated the Constitution by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers that stressed Christianity.

The case is similar to a federal lawsuit filed by the North Carolina American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three Rowan County residents against County commissioners earlier this year.

But Chairman Jim Sides said every case is different and he isn’t yet sure what a decision could mean for the county’s case.

“I’m not as familiar with the New York case as I am with ours,” Sides said. “I think ours is somewhat different. That’s one of the reasons we felt comfortable in challenging the ACLU because our case is totally different from even the Forsyth County case.”

In the Forsyth County case, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the county and said commissioners were excluding the public by beginning meetings with a Christian invocation.

Sides said he hopes the high court looks at the split in rulings across the country.

“There have been some that were favorable to the ACLU. There have been some that were unfavorable to the ACLU,” he said. “I’m assuming the Supreme Court will look at all of them.”

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the New York town should have made a greater effort to invite people from other faiths to open its monthly board meetings.

The town says the Supreme Court already has upheld prayers at the start of legislative meetings and that private citizens offered invocations of their own choosing. The town said in court papers that the opening prayers should be found to be constitutional, “so long as the government does not act with improper motive in selecting prayer-givers.”

Two town residents who are not Christian complained that they felt marginalized by the steady stream of Christian prayers and challenged the practice. They are represented by Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Reacting to the court action Monday, the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said, “A town council meeting isn’t a church service, and it shouldn’t seem like one.”

The town is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based group that presses faith-based cases in courts nationwide. ADF senior counsel David Cortman said the framers of the Constitution prayed while drafting the Bill of Rights. “Americans today should be as free as the Founders were to pray,” Cortman said.

From 1999 through 2007, and again from January 2009 through June 2010, every meeting was opened with a Christian-oriented invocation. In 2008, after residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens complained, four of 12 meetings were opened by non-Christians, including a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation. 

A town employee each month selected clerics or lay people by using a local published guide of churches. The guide did not include non-Christian denominations, however. The court found that religious institutions in the town of just under 100,000 people are primarily Christian, and even Galloway and Stephens testified they knew of no non-Christian places of worship there. 

The court ruled the town should have expanded its search outside its borders. 

Arguments will take place in the fall.

The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway, 12-696. 

Also on Monday, the justices voted 6-3 to uphold the Federal Communications Commission’s authority to try to speed local government decisions on applications to build or expand cell phone towers.

In four other decisions, all unanimous, the court:

Ruled against the Internal Revenue Service and for companies that want to claim U.S. tax credits to offset millions of dollars in windfall tax payments in Great Britain.

Allowed a woman to collect attorney’s fees even though she waited too long to file a lawsuit claiming damage from a vaccine.

Said that convicted murderer Burt Lancaster was not entitled to a new trial, reversing a lower court ruling that said Lancaster should have been allowed to argue that mental illness mitigated his culpability.

Rejected the Mississippi NAACP’s challenge to the state’s 2011 elections because they were held without adopting new legislative districts to take account of 2010 census results and diluted African-American voting strength.

The justices also:

Agreed to decide the extent of whistleblower protection for people who report wrongdoing under the Sarbanes Oxley law that tightened accounting regulations in response to corporate scandals.

Stepped into a dispute between Delta Air Lines and Rabbi S. Binyomin Ginsberg, who sued Delta-owned Northwest Inc. after he was kicked out of its frequent-flier program for complaining too much.

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