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Public prayers: Freedom prevails

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Tuesday, May 6, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Americans once again are more free to exercise their freedom of religion, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The high court ruled Monday, and along the expected 5-4 conservative-liberal split, that ceremonial prayer indeed is permitted to open public government meetings and is not an unconstitutional endorsement of religion.

The case came out of Greece, N.Y., where council meetings began with such an invocation. A Jewish resident and an atheist took umbrage, claiming that because only Christians tended to deliver the prayers, the Constitution's Establishment Clause was being violated. A federal district court sided with the town while a federal appeals court agreed with the plaintiffs.

But Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, not only noted that such prayers have been a part of this nation's public meetings since the Founding, he reminded that Greece offered clergy of all faiths — and even atheists — the opportunity to open the meetings. And the local government did not screen or otherwise control prayer content. Given the religious demographics of the upstate New York community, most of the prayers were Christian in nature.

But as Mr. Justice Kennedy noted, citing the practice of using appointed and visiting chaplains “to express themselves in a religious idiom” in opening sessions of Congress, “It acknowledges our growing diversity not by proscribing sectarian content but by welcoming ministers of many creeds.”

The court's bottom line, and one on which we all should reflect: “(G)overnment may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech.”

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