Greece v. Galloway Could Bring Down a Valuable American Tradition

Chairmen and chairwomen doing a prayer before a local government meeting

Wednesday morning, the Supreme Court will hear Greece v. Galloway, a case challenging the constitutionality of prayers before local government meetings. Despite our cultural proclivity to see any religious activity in government as a violation of the separation of church and state, these prayers remain consistent with both our nation’s history and our Constitution and, in a few months, the Court should rule in favor of the town of Greece. 

The town of Greece, New York (near Rochester) decided over a decade ago to begin its public meetings with a prayer. These prayers, recited by a rotating minister representing a variety of faith traditions, are entirely written by clerics and are not subject to influence or review from the government’s elected board. After a cursory challenge to the practice that claimed the prayers were disproportionately Christian, the board rectified the issue by encouraging members of all faiths to offer the opening prayer. As a result, the meetings have begun with Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, and Wiccan invocations.

Petitioning on behalf of the town of Greece, a number of groups filed amicus briefs to the Court. First, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a claim arguing that legislative prayer was present even before and during the Revolutionary War and has “remained a widespread and accepted practice.” Second, the Chaplain Alliance for Religious Liberty drafted remarks arguing that that the previous court’s reasoning “requires the State to pick and choose between religions and causes an even greater degree of state entanglement.” Ironically, maintaining the status quo is the best practice to match both historical precedent and the Establishment Clause (the section of the First Amendment that prevents the government from giving any religion preferential treatment). Third, a group of U.S. senators (including Tim Scott, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Mike Lee) filed a brief stating,  “Judicial inquiry into the content of legislative prayers would unduly interfere with the internal workings of a co-equal branch of government.”

Arguing on behalf of Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, the citizens who launched the case against the town of Greece, other groups filed briefs as well. First, a group of Democratic congressmen argued that the Court should note the contextual differences between this case and Marsh v. Chambers (the last major case to take up the Establishment Clause), highlighting the Greece's endorsement of religion. Second, the Freedom from Religion Foundation went a step further, writing “As a result of elevating history over principle, Marsh subjugates fundamental rights to majority rule.” Third, a collection of groups including American Atheists, the American Humanist Association, and the Secular Student Alliance argued that the increased plurality of religious beliefs in society show that the practice of legislative prayer is unfair and subsequently inequitable.

After Wednesday's arguments, we will have a much better understanding of how the Court is thinking on this issue; regardless, the Court should rule in favor of the town of Greece and permit the practice of legislative prayer. Given the broad history of legislative prayer in this country, there is certainly historical precedent for the continuation of this practice, especially considering that it allows opportunities for all religious groups. Following an interpretation of the First Amendment that interprets the Establishment Clause as meaning the government should not endorse one religious group over another, Greece's practice of legislative prayer is clearly constitutional. Lastly, this case is consistent with the precedent set by Marsh v. Chambers (1983), which allowed the hiring of a chaplain for the Nebraska state legislature to lead prayers.

For these reasons, the town of Greece is well poised leading up to tomorrow morning’s arguments.