Justices consider council's prayers
By The Washington Post
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 7:06 p.m.
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Wednesday struggled with how government can accommodate the nation's religious history without endorsing beliefs not shared by all, as the justices considered a New York town's practice of opening its meetings with a prayer.
The court 30 years ago decided that legislatures may open their sessions with a prayer. But the oral arguments considered whether different rules might be needed for a local council meeting, where citizens often come to ask for favors or official action.
A federal appeals court said the town of Greece, N.Y., had improperly identified itself with Christianity through the prayers offered at its meetings in a 10-year period.
As always, the session began with the Supreme Court marshal's intonation, “God save the United States and this honorable court.”
Justice Elena Kagan immediately asked Thomas Hungar, representing the town, whether it would have been proper for the chief justice to have asked all in attendance to stand, bow their heads and listen to a prayer that called upon “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.”
Hungar said he did not think so, but the country had a “different history” about prayers opening legislative sessions. It dates to the initial Congress that wrote the First Amendment's prohibition against establishing a national religion as well as the protection of the free exercise of faith, he said.
Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor representing two town residents who objected to the prayers, said that was what distinguished the case from the court's 1983 decision in Marsh v. Chambers — a ruling that Nebraska had not violated the Constitution by employing a Presbyterian minister for 16 years to lead the legislature in prayer.
He said Greece's practice forced citizens who might not agree with the prayer to either participate against their will or irritate council members from whom they hoped to receive favorable action.
Laycock said the town should be allowed to offer prayers but that those prayers should “stay away from points on which believers disagree.”
Conservatives on the court said that would simply raise more problems, because it could lead to what Justice Anthony Kennedy called “state censorships.”
Chief Justice John Roberts asked who in government would decide which prayers went too far. Justice Samuel Alito repeatedly asked Laycock for an example of a prayer that would satisfy all in such a religiously diverse country.
The lawyer acknowledged it would be difficult.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- ‘Patriots’ back Nevada rancher; Reid labels them ‘domestic terrorists’
- Health care law enrollee passwords at risk for Heartbleed Internet security flaw, feds warn
- Washington’s snowy owl recovers from apparent bus crash, returns to wild
- Denver wife killed 12 minutes into 911 call, sparking inquiry
- Ohio couple married for 70 years dies just 15 hours apart
- IRS, other agencies award contracts to license plate tracking company
- Gun rights to return to Supreme Court’s agenda
- Recovery expert believes wreckage of missing plane located
- Colorado deaths stoke marijuana worries
- High court ruling sets off race for bigger campaign donations
- Tax Day’s a big deal ... only if you owe Uncle Sam