By Bill Mears and Daniel Burke, CNN
WASHINGTON (CNN) - Should prayers to God open government meetings?
That's the controversial question a divided Supreme Court debated on Wednesday.
At oral arguments about whether public prayers at a New York town's board meetings are permissible, the high court took a broad look at the country's church-state history and even the Supreme Court's own traditions.
Two local women sued officials in Greece, New York, objecting that monthly Town Board public sessions have opened with invocations they say have been overwhelmingly Christian.
But the case's implications extend far beyond upstate New York and could have widespread consequences, according to constitutional scholars.
"This is going to affect communities across the country," said Charles C. Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center.
The frequent court battles over public prayers, Ten Commandment memorials and holiday displays might strike some Americans as silly, but they touch on deep questions about national identity to reach back to the Founding Fathers, Haynes said.
"It's a long struggle in our country about self-definition and what our country was founded to be. That's why we keep circling back to these emotional and highly divisive questions."
At Wednesday's oral arguments, the court's conservative majority appeared to have the votes to allow the public prayers to continue in some form, but both sides expressed concerns about the level of judicial and government oversight over prayers presented by members of a particular faith.
"We are a very religiously diverse country," said Justice Samuel Alito, who worried about the town officials setting up binding guidelines. "All should be treated equally. So I can't see how you can compose a prayer that is acceptable to all these" religions.
But Justice Sonia Sotomayor worried about the effect on local citizens who choose not to stand and bow their heads when asked during a public prayer. "You think any of those people wouldn't feel coerced to stand?"
MORE ON CNN: Atheist gets her day at the Supreme Court
The high court began its public session Wednesday as it has for decades, with the marshal invoking a traditional statement that ends, "God save the United States and this honorable court."
The town outside Rochester began allowing prayers to start its meetings in 1999, after years of having a moment of silence.
Co-plaintiffs Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway challenged the revised policy, saying officials repeatedly ignored their requests to modify or eliminate the practice, or at least make it more inclusive.
"It's very divisive when you bring government into religion," Stephens said.
"I don't believe in God, and Susan is Jewish, so to hear these ministers talk about Jesus and even have some of them who personally question our motives, it's just not appropriate."
The town of about 94,000 residents counters that after hearing concerns from the two women and others, it sought diverse voices, including a Wiccan priestess, to offer invocations.
Officials said they do not review the content of the remarks, nor censor any language.
"The faith of the prayer-giver does not matter at all," said John Auberger, Greece's board supervisor, who began the practice shortly after taking office 1998. "We accept anyone who wants to come in and volunteer to give the prayer to open up our town meetings."
A federal appeals court in New York found the board's policy to be an unconstitutional violation of the Constitution's establishment clause, which forbids any government "endorsement" of religion. Those judges said it had the effect of "affiliating the town with Christianity."
Congress and state legislatures regularly open their sessions with prayers.
One question before the Supreme Court is whether local government bodies are different, in that there might be more active involvement with local citizens, who may want to personally petition the town in zoning, tax, and other matters.
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Justice Elena Kagan explored the limits of permissible government action by using the Supreme Court as an example.
She asked whether the court could suddenly invite a Christian minister to invoke the following prayer, inside the ornate marbled courtroom: "We acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross." "Would that be permissible?" asked Kagan.
Attorney Thomas Hungar, attorney for the town of Greece, suggested courts were different, and that the national legislature had had similar prayers since the nation's founding.
"Whatever line might be drawn between nonlegislative bodies and legislative bodies," Hungar said, "it would be incongruous, if Congress could have legislative prayers and the states couldn't."
But the lawyer for the plaintiffs, supported by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said unlike legislatures, Greece had no official policy on prayers.
"The policy should give guidelines to chaplains that say, 'Stay away from points in which believers are known to disagree,'" said Douglas Laycock, who represented the two women objecting to the prayers. "And we think the town should do what it can to ameliorate coercion. It should tell the clergy: 'Don't ask people to physically participate.' That's the most important thing."
But some justices on the high court expressed doubts about the extent to which lawmakers – and later courts – should advise various faiths about what to say, and parse what is sectarian or not.
"Give me an example of a prayer that is acceptable to all of the groups that I mentioned," said Alito, whose list included Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists.
When Laycock suggested something like, "The prayers to the almighty, prayers to the creator," Alito and others were unconvinced, saying polytheists might object.
"What about devil worshippers?" asked Justice Antonin Scalia, bringing laughter to the courtroom.
"Well, if devil worshippers believe the devil is the almighty, they might be OK with it," responded Laycock, smiling.
"Who was supposed to make these determinations? Is there supposed to be an officer of the town council that will review?" asked Chief Justice John Roberts. "Do prayers have to be reviewed for his approval in advance?"
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who may prove to be the swing vote in his petition, was especially vocal.
"It just seems to me that enforcing that standard involves the state very heavily in the censorship and the approval or disapproval of prayers," he said. "I'm serious about this. This involves government very heavily in religion."
He also suggested small towns deserve as much right to allow a brief prayer in public sessions as federal and state bodies.
"In a way it sounds quite elitist to say, 'Well, now, we can do this in Washington and Sacramento and Austin, Texas, but you people up there in Greece can't do that.'"
Several members of Congress were in attendance at the argument, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.
"Every day before the Senate meets, the Senate chaplain comes out and gives a prayer, and that's important to us," Rubio told CNN just after arguments ended.
"It's part of our country's tradition; it's also our constitutional right, to be able to exercise that. And I thought it was important to defend that here today."
Nearly 120 members of Congress, mostly Republicans, along with 18 state attorneys general, have filed supporting legal briefs backing the city. The Obama administration is doing the same.
Stephens and Galloway, the two plaintiffs, said they have faced harassment from their community and even vandalism of their property.
"The pastors face the people (in the meetings), they don't face the town government, so it's like they're praying over us," Galloway told CNN after the argument.
"When they all stood and I sat, and I have a hundred eyes looking at me, and questioning what's going on, they think I'm being disrespectful. It does put a lot of pressure on you and it makes you very uncomfortable. It singles you out, and that shouldn't be in my town government, and it shouldn't be anywhere."
The high court has generally taken a case-by-case approach on determining just when the state intrudes unconstitutionally into religion, while generally allowing faith to be acknowledged in a limited basis in public forums.
"In God We Trust" remains on currency; the Pledge of Allegiance and oaths of office mention a divine creator; and menorah and crèche displays are permitted in local parks.
But the justices acknowledge the tricky line they must walk – politically, socially and legally – when deciding church-state cases.
"It's hard because the (Supreme) Court lays down these rules, and everybody thinks that the court is being hostile to religion, and people get unhappy and angry and agitated," said Kagan near the end of Wednesday's oral arguments.
"Part of what we are trying to do here is to maintain a multireligious society in a peaceful and harmonious way. And every time the court gets involved in things like this, it seems to make the problem worse rather than better."
The case is Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway (12-696). A ruling is expected by early summer.
It's easy to be the bully when you are in the majority. It would be interesting to see how Rubio felt if the opening prayer at every government function was to Allah. Why can't religious extremists simply live their lives as they like, but stop forcing their religion on everyone else?
Islamic extremists = conservative Christians
Each forces their religion upon others as much as the culture in which they live allows.
He never promised we wouldn't die, tragically. He promised that we needed to be ready.
No, much better to pray to a mythical sky daddy who will punish you if you don't kiss his butt.
No, much better to pray to a mythical sky daddy who will punish you if you don't kiss his a$$
Prayer changes things
BS Religion is bad for our country. hello, Look at Iran, they are religious and look at their country. Would you like to look like that? thats what religion does to countries, set them back 1000's of years.
One nation under God
There is only one God. The word god refers to an idol which you appear confused by.
there is no God, sorry
And believe it or not this comes out of Texas, nothing but the truth no gods/devil required.
“This is bigger than finding any dinosaur,” Chatterjee said. “This is what we’ve all searched for – the Holy Grail of science.”
Thanks to regular and heavy comet and meteorite bombardment of Earth’s surface during its formative years 4 billion years ago
Paper No. 300-5: Impact, RNA-Protein World and the Endoprebiotic Origin of Life https://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2013AM/webprogram/Paper222699.html
If you don't buy evolution you can't get a job. It's some kinda mark of da Beast. It's a LAW, err theory.
I say this lol??, I have never asked that of anyone I have hired and you are way out there.
yeah, I've done 40 or 50 interviews and never asked anyone about their beliefs on evolution. Unless they candidate is going to work in a related scientific or education field it's pretty pointless, not to mention mostly illegal.
The background check which most employers use now (20 years ago not so much) makes it easier on the bottom line.
Let us pray, for all atheists
Lets us think for all christians
Thank You and we will pray for you.
Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
Atheists, and I always mean our atheists, the 1 or 2 posting here, r seriously dumb and uneducated. I am amazed how little they no about everything. No wonder they can't c god's reality. They r seriously mentally challenged. They think the bombing of pearl harbor, for example, led to our involvement in the big war.
Dorothy Murdock messing with your head, faith? Here's a little Beatles song for you.
Here comes the sun king
Here comes the sun king
Here comes the sun king
Quando paramucho mi amore de felice carathon
Mundo paparazzi mi amore cicce verdi parasol
Questo abrigado tantamucho que canite carousel
I attended a multi religious boarding school here in Nigeria and we dealt with it simply before and after meals,which ever student whose duty it was to lead the grace made two simple statements,
'bow down your heads and close your eyes','for the food we are about to eat'
And the simple response was 'we thank thee o Lord'
This served christians,muslims and traditional worshipers alike.
Does nothing for Christians. As you have observed God blesses the whole wurld with food, rain, etc. The thankfulness at mealtime for a Christian is to remember the crosswork of God. Daniel prayed 3 times a day, too.
boycott cnn's advertisers
let us run from christ's life
let us discuss dorothy murdoch and her ridiculous delusions
How did you get to be so fucked up in the head? You've got to tell that story.
Let us throw you into a secured mental facility.
I think Satan is an interesting guy. I think he's swell. Most of all I like that I can say that in public.
y not discuss loonie tunes incarnate ms murdoch?
y not discuss loonie tunes incarnate ms murdoch? i mean after all Dorothy, horus didn't walk on water
y not discuss loonie tunes incarnate ms murdoch? i mean after all Dorothy, horus didn't walk on water!
Because nobody knows or cares who DM Murdoch is??
That nose is getting longer bucko
I have never heard of this person either. I should care, why?
She is god
How can the Supreme Court be divided on matters pertaining to God, when their own money says ' in God we trust ' ?
Because "In God We Trust" was added to our money purely for political reasons in 1956. As a way to show how we are a "religious" nation in the face of the "atheist" communists. That saying is nothing more that old political grand standing.
Religion is the opium of the masses. Oh, shoot. It didn't work in Russia, Cuba or China. Strike that.
The idea of freedom from religion was that the state would not designate one religion over another as they did in England. The idea wasn't to ban religion, just the practice of the government saying this is the preferred religion. Oh, by the way...all the founders were either Christian or Deists. No Muslims, Jews or others. We were not tolerant of other religion back then. Not saying that's right...just saying that we were being tolerant of Christian religions...not all religions. People lose this context. I believe that government meetings can start with a non-denominational prayer. That covers Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The end.
Why the hey would Masters delegate prayin' to PUblic Servants?? The servants can't even figure out marriage and the birds and the bees.
Secularism is the only way to go. If there is no prayer at government meetings, who wins? Everyone. If there is prayer at government meetings, who wins? The religion of the majority.
Government time and money should be spent on governing, not religious pandering.
I think there should be a ten minute interval a day, dedicated to a different religion each day. I do believe that atheism should get a day, that agnosticism should get a day, and so on and here's why. It may be time consuming but we are not a "secular" nation. We are a nation of diversity and it would show support for all people not just non religious people.
I don't think anybody should be excluded.
We are a secular nation with diverse religions. Look up the definition of the US.
FYI....... atheism is not a religion.
Prayer should start all government events. Just like the way our fantastic country was founded. In God We Trust.
"In God We Trust" was not our national motto until the 1950s mister "the way our fantastic county was founded." Why do you think the const.itution makes no mention of a god or gods? Because they intended for every religion (or none) to be equal.
There is no mention of any god in the US const!tution but I'm sure you won't let that fact get in the way of your delusions.
Sure there is.
" Done in convention by the unanimous consent of the states present the seventeenth day of September in the year of our LORD=God one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven and of the independence of the United States of America."
Ok, you are right – that reference, arguably irrelevant to the content of the rest of the docu.ment, is absolute proof the US was intended to be a theocracy. Too bad nothing else in US law does.
Odd that you would quote from the Declaration on Independance when trying to support your false argument about the const!tution.
Care to try again?
The Declaration of Independence (written by Thomas Jefferson) uses: "IN CONGRESS, July 4, 1776."
The Const.itution uses the more formal "In the Year of our Lord..." The Consti.tution also used the formal "Congrefs" and things like that too, though.
Let's pretend that you're correct, and allow prayers to begin public meetings. When the prayer begins, I'll stand and clap loudly, whistle, and fart. That's the way I pray. I find silent prayer by a hypocritical clergy to be offensive. Also, my prayer will last longer than the entire public meeting. See how I did that?
Terrific post, markinator.
YES! Absolutely, you are free to do all that. Tell that to your fellow atheists that they will waste their time, energy and money in going to court no more.
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.