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May 5th, 2014
04:23 PM ET

After Supreme Court ruling, do religious minorities have a prayer?

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-editor

(CNN) - If you don't like it, leave the room.

That's Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's advice for atheists and others who object to sectarian prayers before government meetings.

In a 5-4 decision written by Kennedy, the Supreme Court allowed Greece, New York, to continue hosting prayers before its monthly town board meetings - even though an atheist and a Jewish citizen complained that the benedictions are almost always explicitly Christian.

Many members of the country's majority faith - that is, Christians - hailed the ruling.

Many members of minority faiths, as well as atheists, responded with palpable anger, saying the Supreme Court has set them apart as second-class citizens.

Groups from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to the Hindu American Foundation decried Monday's decision.

"The court’s decision to bless ‘majority-rules’ prayer is out of step with the changing face of America, which is more secular and less dogmatic,” said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which litigated the case.

At least one justice, Elena Kagan, seemed to agree. And while Kennedy's decision reads like a lesson in American history, Kagan's dissent offers a picture of the country's increasingly pluralistic present.

American politicians have prayed before public gatherings since the Founding Fathers crowded into a stuffy Philadelphia room to crank out the Constitution, Kennedy writes.

The inaugural and "emphatically Christian" prayer at the First Continental Congress was delivered by an Anglican minister, who overcame objections from the assembled Quakers, Anabaptists and Presbyterians.

The prayer united the mostly Christian Founding Fathers, and the rest is history, Kennedy writes.

So, the justice suggests, as long prayers at public meetings don't fall into a pattern of proselytizing, denigrating nonbelievers or threatening damnation, what's the problem?

According to a recent poll, the vast majority of Americans share Kennedy's view.

Less than 23% of Americans told pollsters at Fairleigh Dickinson University that they dislike prayers at public government meetings.

“This has always been a praying nation, despite its very secular Constitution,” said Peter J. Woolley, professor of comparative politics at Fairleigh Dickinson in Hackensack, New Jersey.

“People generally see generic prayer as harmless, if not uplifting, not as something that is oppressive.”

But what about people who like their local government meetings to be religion-free?

"Should nonbelievers choose to exit the room during a prayer they find distasteful, their absence will not stand out as disrespectful or even noteworthy," Kennedy writes.

Kagan, writing for the dissenting minority, sharply disagreed.

She suggested that the five justices who formed the majority - all of whom are Catholic - don't understand what it's like to belong to a minority faith in America.

The Supreme Court's Catholic majority seems to think that, because many prayers before government meetings take on a ceremonial aspect, the actual content of the prayers doesn't matter, Kagan continues.

In essence, she said, the majority is making light of religious differences while conferring a special role on Christianity.

"Contrary to the majority's apparent view, such sectarian prayers are not 'part of our expressive idiom' or 'part of our heritage and tradition,' assuming that 'our' refers to all Americans. They express beliefs that are fundamental to some, foreign to others - and because of that they carry the ever-present potential to divide and exclude."

To illustrate her point, Kagan, who is Jewish, raises a hypothetical scenario.

Let's say there's a Muslim resident of Greece, New York, who appears before the town board to share her policy views or request a permit.

Just before the Muslim woman makes her argument, a minister "deputized by the town" asks the room to pray in the name of "God's only son Jesus Christ."

With less than a dozen people the room, every action is noticed.

So, the Muslim woman has two choices, Kagan argues: 1) Go along with the majority and pray, despite her religious objections, or 2) Risk causing some kind of disturbance or public disagreement with the very people she is trying to persuade.

"And thus she stands at a remove, based solely on religion, from her fellow citizens and her elected representatives," Kagan writes.

Kagan did not suggest that the Supreme Court's majority (Kennedy, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito) voted to uphold sectarian prayer because they are members of the country's largest church, Roman Catholicism.

But Ronald Lindsay of the Center for Inquiry, a Humanist group, called it "striking and sad" that "five of the six Christian justices on the Supreme Court formed the majority." (Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is Catholic, voted with Kagan.)

"With a Supreme Court that appears hostile to the rights of religious minorities, those of us who believe in a secular government must redouble our legal and advocacy efforts,” Lindsay said.

Of course, there's a great gap between being Catholic and using the gavel to promote Christianity.

But a new study conducted by scholars at the University of Southern California offers intriguing insights into how the justices have voted on First Amendment issues.

The upshot: The conservative justices tend to side with conservative causes; the liberals with liberal ones.

"Supreme Court Justices are opportunistic supporters of the First Amendment," write the scholars.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Church and state • Courts • Discrimination • Interfaith issues • Prejudice • Religious liberty

soundoff (2,070 Responses)
  1. ugetthefacts

    I pray I'll win the lottery. Where the F is jesus?

    May 5, 2014 at 8:42 pm |
  2. Doris

    I think this was to be expected given the ages and leanings of the majority conservative justices as well as the tradition practiced from the top – the congressional chaplaincy. Obviously then it will take time before church and state supporters will see in an improvement for this specific situation where tradition hits so close to home for many politicians.

    As poster "I'm not a GOPer..." noted below, James Madison, chief architect of our Const.itution and eleven of its Amendments including the Bill of Rights seemed to think quite differently from Justice Kennedy. He wrote on more than one occasion that it was against the principles of religious freedom and against the objectives of separation or church and state that Congress be afforded official chaplains by the taxpayer. To repeat a bit from one of these instances, 'Detached Memoranda' (see Library of Congress), Madison wrote:

    "Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Consti.tution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative."

    May 5, 2014 at 8:40 pm |
  3. ugetthefacts

    Jesus was a fu-k up. We should crucify him again. Then again, he'll come back on easter. Cool, we get to do it agian

    May 5, 2014 at 8:39 pm |
    • kenman14

      Typical bitter little atheist! Sad for you.

      May 5, 2014 at 8:46 pm |
  4. stephanurus

    Let's have some non-standard prayers now. How about some Voodoo, or a bit of Hinduism. How about some Native American. What about the followers of the Goat God. Don't forget Zoroaster and Osiris. Everybody gets a turn. Nobody can be turned away now. Why? Religious discrimination, that's why. If one religion is good for City Hall, all are. Swamp 'em and show 'em.

    May 5, 2014 at 8:39 pm |
    • tcppp12

      And THAT my friend is the only way to fix this nonsense. The case brought was clearly the wrong one. Rather than suing for the removal of any prayer they should sue to include every conceivable religion (or non-religion)! THEN there is a basis for a real lawsuit for civil rights violations...

      May 5, 2014 at 8:42 pm |
    • aarodriguezr

      Eventually, and after we sue each other to death in this country, we will come to a point of pulling a gun (It is happening already) and start shooting people because the other person is not like me.

      We live in a democracy, were the majority is Christian. I do not see Christians imposing their beliefs on others, even though
      they proselytize. Let's see in Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other Muslim countries do not allow any other religion other than Islam. Are we approaching the point were the Atheists will impose the single religion in the US called Atheism?
      This country is moving dangerously into the territory of intolerance.

      I agree with the majority of the Supreme Court, even though I not religious but not an Atheist.

      Were is our tolerance and respect for the majority. That is the essence of a democracy, and respect is all that is needed to make work.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:22 pm |
      • G to the T

        The whole idea of our governmental system is to protect the rights of the minorities against the whims of the majority.

        NO ONE is asking for an atheistic government. What they are asking for is a SECULAR government. To truly represent the people, a government should be "blind" to ALL religious beliefs. A government should strive to provide the most liberity possible to the most people possible. Being inclusive (i.e. secular) should be the goal, not exclusive (i.e. supporting a specific religious view).

        May 6, 2014 at 8:26 am |
      • joey3467

        We live in a democracy, were the majority is Christian. I do not see Christians imposing their beliefs on others, even though
        they proselytize.

        Then you need to open your eyes. For example, gay marriage bans, abortion bans, and not being able to buy alcohol on Sundays to name but a few.

        May 6, 2014 at 1:23 pm |
  5. t3chn0ph0b3

    Yet another social conservative bulldoze from the social conservative bulldozers. You're not doing social conservatism any favors, Kennedy. This is the kind of stuff that really makes a lot people mad.

    May 5, 2014 at 8:37 pm |
  6. scootfl78

    This is what church and the home is for. Anyone who is for pushing their faith on other people is disgusting and if they're proclaiming to be Christian, they are the furthest from it because in the New Testament, Jesus was against bullying and tyranny.

    May 5, 2014 at 8:36 pm |
    • niccage2014

      So, someone saying a prayer is trying to convert everyone. You must really get out of the house, a lot...

      May 5, 2014 at 8:37 pm |
      • observer

        niccage2014,

        Any problem if atheists are given equal time to state their beliefs in meetings?

        May 5, 2014 at 8:42 pm |
      • tcppp12

        Is trolling all you do? Is it really that fun?

        May 5, 2014 at 8:42 pm |
      • veggiedude

        I always thought people had the freedom to say a prayer in their mind. Why do you have to say it out loud so everyone can hear it???

        May 5, 2014 at 8:43 pm |
    • kenman14

      To call someone for "bullying and tyranny" for wanting to address their Creator for guidance in these important venues, is silly and typically bitterness from someone who doesn't know what it's like to recognize the ultimate authority. You really seem like the typical bitter atheist that just resents someone else's peace and contentment that you resist!

      May 5, 2014 at 8:52 pm |
      • tcppp12

        Why must it be only Christians?

        May 5, 2014 at 8:57 pm |
        • cha.otic

          It doesn't have to be! That's the beauty of our country. A Muslim can pray aloud there too. Their 1st Amendment right will be violated if someone objects or persecutes them for it. The separation of church and state was not the removal of church from state. It just means we can't prosecute the minority religions, and the decision of the Supreme Court today affirms that. if I were that Jewish person in New York, I'd ask to say my own prayer either before or after the Christian prayer.

          May 5, 2014 at 9:25 pm |
        • G to the T

          Chaotic – where does it end though once you go down that road? How much time are you going to alot to EVERY town meeting in the country so we can be sure all possible views are accounted for?

          Wouldn't it make much more sense just to NOT include prayer as part of the public process and keep government business secular in nature?

          May 6, 2014 at 10:23 am |
        • gulliblenomore

          GT....yes

          May 6, 2014 at 10:25 am |
        • joey3467

          Hopefully a group will go to a meeting and demand so many different types of prayers that the meeting will never take place. They should do this every single time a government meeting is planned until the morons realize why this ruling is a bad idea.

          May 6, 2014 at 1:25 pm |
  7. eqgold

    unbelievable.

    May 5, 2014 at 8:34 pm |
    • ugetthefacts

      old far-ts. would you expect?

      May 5, 2014 at 8:36 pm |
  8. HenryMiller

    "If you don't like it, leave the room."

    Or do your own praying. Or read a book. Whatever. I have zero patience with religious drivel, but if other people want to indulge in it, that's their business.

    May 5, 2014 at 8:33 pm |
    • MidwestKen

      I have no problem with other people praying, but this is a government function.

      May 5, 2014 at 8:36 pm |
    • tcppp12

      Then let THEM leave the room to do it!

      May 5, 2014 at 8:43 pm |
  9. sameeker

    If prayer works so well, why do we still have a crooked government, poverty, disease and war.

    May 5, 2014 at 8:32 pm |
    • ugetthefacts

      Religion ages never worked,, unless you like voodoo. Rather primitive..

      May 5, 2014 at 8:34 pm |
  10. jacknyd

    Supreme Court: If you don't like it, leave the room
    ---------------------
    Or do like the Sheppard did, Get the flock out. Good bye liberals lol

    May 5, 2014 at 8:29 pm |
    • ugetthefacts

      I'm a conservative,, and a few conservatives are an embarrassment to intelligence. z Fk Jesus

      May 5, 2014 at 8:32 pm |
  11. ugetthefacts

    jesus is like charlie manson.,, or rather charlie manson is like jesus... if you like it, then leave,

    May 5, 2014 at 8:28 pm |
  12. qsmurf

    These conservative justices are just as oblivious about the penchant for religion to discriminate as they are about racial discrimination, apparently.

    They think racism is resolved. They think religious disagreements are resolved. They think all Americans are simply of like-mind and couldn't possibly find a valid reason to disagree with their high and mighty opinions on these issues – they are over and that is that.

    The single most important reason to continue electing progressive-minded presidents into the foreseeable future is to diminish the conservative side of the Supreme Court to the point of nonexistence!

    May 5, 2014 at 8:25 pm |
    • bradbarnhill

      The founding fathers were all of like minds ... the country was founded on christian values and by the people with faith in god. So if you dont like it ... find another country to try to ruin.

      May 5, 2014 at 8:28 pm |
      • freefromtheism

        Actually, that's just false. Do some research and come back.

        May 5, 2014 at 8:29 pm |
        • niccage2014

          Let's see; Thomas Jefferson is a possibility, though he liked Jesus enough to make his own copy of the bible with his words alone. Thomas Paine is another possibility, as he believed in no religion at all. Yet even Franklin believed in god. Such was a requirement to be a freemason. Looks like factually, your bias against "theism" sticks out like a sore thumb. Sorry you're such a loser, kiddo. Maybe you'll have better luck with medication?

          May 5, 2014 at 8:33 pm |
        • observer

          niccage2014,

          Thomas Jefferson thought the Bible contained so much NONSENSE that he edited his copy down to 50 pages.

          Jefferson was NOT a Christian.

          May 5, 2014 at 8:38 pm |
        • freefromtheism

          So, first you concede my point and provide evidence of your own to support what I've said, but then you proceed to insult me.
          Yes, that makes sense.
          And I'm the one that could use medication?
          Please....

          May 5, 2014 at 8:40 pm |
        • cha.otic

          "All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

          Yeah, the founding fathers weren't religious. They just specifically refer to a Creator in the Declaration of Independence.

          May 5, 2014 at 9:28 pm |
      • archtopopotamus

        They absolutely were not.

        May 5, 2014 at 8:31 pm |
        • wpw1603

          Actually, Judeo Christian beliefs is what this nation was founded upon. The common belief of one God – not necessarily Jesus; the same as Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. Let's see now, that covers about 70% of the population. "God' forbid, the majority be allowed to worship their beliefs.

          May 5, 2014 at 9:09 pm |
      • seedenbetter

        You're just another liar for Jesus.

        May 5, 2014 at 8:34 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        "The founding fathers were all of like minds"
        --------------

        Nonsense. They were politicians – in a committee.

        "the country was founded on christian values"
        --------------

        Like slaves being equal to three fifths of a man. Very Christian. I'm sure it was Jesus who inspired that!

        May 5, 2014 at 8:49 pm |
      • martialbob

        Which ones, pray tell?

        May 5, 2014 at 9:03 pm |
      • fintronics

        •"Whenever we read the obscene stories the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon rather than the word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and, for my part, I sincerely detest it as I detest everything that is cruel."
        – Thomas Paine, Age of Reason, Part 1

        May 6, 2014 at 9:45 am |
    • niccage2014

      Then ban the right to own firearms, make it illegal to pray in public, force people to prop up Democratic politicians, make the world a "better place" for your fellow communists, etcetera.

      Yeah, no. I don't think your dream-world is very appealing, in the slightest. You're not progressing anywhere. You don't even have the slightest clue as to what direction you're heading. You scream left, and you'll run left 'till you throw yourself off a cliff. Good job, Bison boy.

      May 5, 2014 at 8:32 pm |
      • observer

        niccage2014

        "make the world a "better place" for your fellow communists,"

        Grow up. You are CLUELESS what a communist is.

        May 5, 2014 at 8:44 pm |
      • tcppp12

        Try and keep up. No one is advocating banning the right to pray in public. What we rightly want is for prayer to be removed from GOVERNMENT functions that the public has a right to attend.

        May 5, 2014 at 8:48 pm |
        • wpw1603

          Then attend [move somewhere else] where you can spew the minority beliefs.

          May 5, 2014 at 9:11 pm |
        • elyhim01

          Government LED prayer is the problem.

          How would you like to send your kids to school and the prayer every morning is to Courtney Love?

          May 5, 2014 at 10:12 pm |
  13. ugetthefacts

    I really want to peeeee.

    If you don't like it? leave

    May 5, 2014 at 8:25 pm |
  14. etiendelamothecassel

    Just stand up and recite the Fairy-Tale Logic poem during the prayer.

    May 5, 2014 at 8:25 pm |
    • ugetthefacts

      you need to accept, they live out of fear. That's why I treat religion as po-rn and keep it way from kids.

      Bad parents will cultivate children into their voodoo,, sad but true.

      May 5, 2014 at 8:31 pm |
      • niccage2014

        Yeah, then you let your kids jack off on the internet all day as an alternative. Good parenting, boss.

        May 5, 2014 at 8:40 pm |
      • etiendelamothecassel

        Left over from the dark ages for sure.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:42 pm |
    • tcppp12

      GREAT idea! I think I will attend our next counsel meeting and after the prayer is finished and they start to really "get down to bidness" I'll just start spouting some fairy tale nonsense and when they threaten to remove me I'll just say "I'm PRAAAAYING...just like you did..."

      May 5, 2014 at 8:50 pm |
  15. niccage2014

    It's hard to tell which is worse.

    The blind believers who believe the earth is flat, or the blind morons who try to silence the blind believers even though they are, de-facto, given the same grounds to preach their own nonsense by this ruling. Standing against this isn't supporting the right to be free from established religion and have the right to speech, it's shredding it.

    Honestly, how stupid do you have to be? Do any of you autistic half-wits have anything better to do than try to shove your own pseudo-intellectual belief system down the throats of other people just because you feel left out? How about you make your own little spiel, and say it on your own accord? Or are you too stupid and bound-up in blindly kissing the ass of the peddlers of your dirty little religion to actually come to your own conclusion? That is what brought you here, after all, other morons who felt like berating freedoms in this nation!

    May 5, 2014 at 8:24 pm |
    • tcppp12

      Explain to us in medical terms exactly what is meant by "autistic half-wits?" The rest of your post is just as ignorant and unintelligible but that portion of it certainly bears explanation.

      May 5, 2014 at 8:39 pm |
  16. danbecker7476

    The US has a separation of church and state for a good reason. Saying prayers in a place as public as a town meeting is totally inappropriate. The funny thing, of course, is that the ones who most want to do it are the ones who have the least amount of true faith. Religion should be a private enterprise, not a public display.

    May 5, 2014 at 8:22 pm |
    • niccage2014

      Wow. You're seriously saying people shouldn't be allowed to pray freely in public places. Is this a new low for you, or have you been here before?

      May 5, 2014 at 8:28 pm |
      • martialbob

        There is a difference than permitting people to pray in a public place and using a prayer as a part of a public ceremony. The later being an endorsement of religion.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:06 pm |
        • G to the T

          Correct – I'm constantly amazed that people just don't get this.

          May 6, 2014 at 12:09 pm |
    • wpw1603

      Separation of church and state has NOTHING to do with saying a prayer. No one is forcing you to believe in anything. The State is not forcing a religion upon anyone. Simply because they wish to pray, does not force anything on anyone.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:13 pm |
      • fintronics

        It has EVERYTHING to do with saying a prayer OUTLOUD in a secular government meeting.

        May 6, 2014 at 9:48 am |
        • G to the T

          And I would like to add "BY government representatives". How can they represent the plurarity of their const.ituents if they are excluding others during the proceedings?

          May 6, 2014 at 12:11 pm |
  17. MadeFromDirt

    The Greece Town Board is not honoring God by dragging Him into their governmental process; it is an insult and offense against God to invoke Him into the vile realm of secular politics. God will work His will and purposes in government regardless of man's desires. God does not need any government to legislate or promote faith, nor does He call for it, nor does He honor any forced prayers. So actually if the Justices had prohibited spoken prayers in this secular setting, they would have better served the spiritual interests of the members of Greece Town Board (and whatever copycats spring up now). But this is not a surprising decision from Catholic Justices, elevating public ceremony at the expense of faith in the heart.

    May 5, 2014 at 8:19 pm |
    • magicpanties

      Thank you so much for "speaking for god".
      It must be wonderful to have a deity speak directly to you.
      Please ask him/her/it when is the 2nd coming and let us know.
      Thanks.

      May 5, 2014 at 8:22 pm |
      • MadeFromDirt

        Magicpanties, God does not "speak" to me, but He gradually reveals truth to me through Scripture in its entirety. The same knowledge and certainty is available to you this very moment by the grace of your Creator, despite your ongoing scoffing against Him.
        But anyway, regarding your inquiry, the truth is that the time of Christ's return to the physical earth is not a concern to God's people, because we are already with Him.

        May 6, 2014 at 12:41 am |
  18. magicpanties

    Not terribly surprising, given that "god" is on our currency, in our pledge, and part of courtroom swearing in.

    But... it's still based on fairy tales. This silly decision doesn't make fantasy any more real.

    May 5, 2014 at 8:18 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "part of courtroom swearing in"

      It's not a required part of courtroom swearing in – except in old movies. Any State that tried to enforce that can be sued.

      May 5, 2014 at 8:22 pm |
      • magicpanties

        nit, nit, nit, pick, pick, pick

        you miss the point and your statement is truly irrelevant

        May 5, 2014 at 8:23 pm |
        • pintodw

          "Most importantly, I want to remind you that in the last days scoffers will come, mocking the truth and following their own desires" 2 Peter 3:3

          May 5, 2014 at 8:26 pm |
        • yeetisboppin

          I predict that people will eat breakfast in 2015. When I'm right, will you start to worship me too?

          May 5, 2014 at 8:55 pm |
    • mikeinthevine

      God wasn't in the Pledge until the 1950's when the Eisenhower administration decided to add it in response the the "Red" scare. The religious right wants to turn this country into a theocracy not unlike Iran. It's just that the Ayatollahs here don't wear turbans.

      May 5, 2014 at 8:26 pm |
  19. observer

    Matthew 6:1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”

    Just more HYPOCRISY.

    May 5, 2014 at 8:18 pm |
    • pintodw

      "Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces." Matthew 7:6

      May 5, 2014 at 8:23 pm |
      • observer

        (Matt. 6:5-6) "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” [Jesus]

        Just more HYPOCRISY.

        May 5, 2014 at 8:29 pm |
    • educatedatheist

      Keep going on Matthew 6.... And it clearly says not to pray in public. .. but they do. ... It clearly say in exodus thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. .. but the Catholics have taken that out and replaced it with their own 2nd commandment and made the 9th into 2 of its own. ... Just blows my mind how we have grown men running this country that believe in fairy tales. . And yet they don't even obey the rules of B'S that they try to protect. religion is to men as blinders are to horses.... If Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson could see the bull sh $@ now. .They would truly think they just wasted their time. ...

      May 5, 2014 at 8:36 pm |
  20. eoyguy

    More activist court decisions. Right, GOPers, TeaWingers and radical Christian Jihadists?Right? Damned activist court!

    May 5, 2014 at 8:12 pm |
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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.