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Justices consider council's prayers

| 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.

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