During the U.S. Supreme Court’s current term, prayer in government meetings is being addressed at the national level for the first time in 30 years.
The Supreme Court heard opening arguments for the Town of Greece v. Galloway case on Nov. 6. The issue in question is the legality of local governments opening their legislative sessions with prayer.
Susan Galloway, a Jew, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, challenged the town of Greece, N.Y.’s, practice of opening board meetings with a prayer, which began in 1999.
According to Jewerl Maxwell, an assistant professor of political science, Cedarville’s status as a private institution means that it is unlikely the case will directly affect the university. If the court rules against the case, a domino effect may limit prayer in a variety of places, he said.
Mark Smith, an associate professor of political science at Cedarville, said he agrees a decision against the town of Greece, N.Y., would start to classify religion as out of bounds in public settings.
“If we question the ability of a city council to open with prayer, we have to question other things such as the national motto, the Pledge of Allegiance and anything bearing a religious image,” Smith said. “I do not think the court wants to go down that path.”
The First Amendment’s establishment clause says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
Amy Howe, an attorney and former instructor at the Harvard Law School, wrote for the Bloomberg Law legal blog that Galloway and Stephens contend that opening with prayer was violating the establishment clause by endorsing Christianity.
According to Maxwell, the town’s prayers do not violate the establishment clause.
“If we trace the First Amendment back to its founding, it specifies Congress,” Maxwell said. “I do not think the (Founding Fathers’) understanding of the clause was that this was going to go down to a state or local level. Even if the (town’s prayer) is an endorsement, I don’t know that that’s a problem.”
Smith said the framers wouldn’t view Greece’s prayer as an issue because the establishment clause was meant to prevent a formal institutional relationship with a church, not an informal one.
“The town’s prayer probably is endorsement,” Smith said, “and I don’t care.”
Both Maxwell and Smith said they disagreed with the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education, handed down in 1947, which applied the establishment clause to the states.
The last Supreme Court case to address prayer in government was Marsh v. Chambers in 1983, which upheld the ability of the Nebraska legislature to open sessions with prayer.
Stephens and Galloway said the prayers in Greece’s town council meetings were more coercive than those given in Nebraska, according to Howe. Those attending meetings felt obligated to take part in the prayers if they wanted to have their permit granted or opinion heard by council members.
Maxwell said he disagrees.
“When you are going to a political forum, there are going to be a lot of things said that you do not agree with,” Maxwell said. “You can invite someone to a church service and a prayer is said, and that does not automatically mean they are involved in the prayer.”
Stephens and Galloway also argue that the prayers in Greece are too sectarian, Howe said.
Smith said that while the Supreme Court has found sectarianism to be an issue in settings such as public schools, they should more closely examine what it means to be sectarian.
“Christianity is not sectarian,” Smith said. “It is a religion that is much broader than a particular sect.”
“If we look at what ‘sectarian’ has meant historically, we are talking about very small units of religion that fragment and fracture on very particular pieces of theology that could be the mode of baptism or the understanding of communion,” Smith said. “These (Greece’s) prayers do not get into these things at all.”
Maxwell said he believes the court will rule in favor of the town and uphold the precedent set by the Marsh v. Chambers case.
Smith said there would likely be four strong votes on either side of the issue but said he cautiously believes the court will decide in favor of Greece, N.Y.
While Smith said he believes ruling against the town would be too much of a legal stretch for Justice Anthony Kennedy, he said that it would not surprise him becausde Kennedy voted against prayers in public school settings in the 1992 Lee v. Weisman case.
John Adams is a senior political science major and a reporter for Cedars. He has interned in both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate in Washington, D.C., and currently serves as vice president of Omega Mu, the political science honor society.