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Atheist gets her day at the Supreme Court
November 1st, 2013
04:39 PM ET

Atheist gets her day at the Supreme Court

By Bill Mears, CNN Supreme Court Producer

(CNN)– Linda Stephens has lived in her upstate New York community for more than three decades and has long been active in civic affairs.

But as an atheist, those views have put her at the center of a personal, political, and legal fight that has reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The issue is public prayer at her local town board meetings, another contentious case over the intersection of faith and the civic arena.

The justices on Wednesday will hear arguments over whether Greece, New York, may continue sponsoring what it calls "inclusive" prayers at its open sessions, on government property.

Stephens and co-plaintiff Susan Galloway have challenged the policy, saying virtually all of those invited to offer legislative prayers over the years were Christians.

"It's very divisive when you bring government into religion," Stephens told CNN from her home.

"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 concerns from the two women and others, it sought diverse voices, including a Wiccan priestess, to offer invocations. Officials say 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."

"To the extent that the state cannot make demands regarding the content of legislative prayers," said Judge Guido Calabresi, "municipalities have few means to forestall the prayer-giver who cannot resist the urge to proselytize. These difficulties may well prompt municipalities to pause and think carefully before adopting legislative prayer, but they are not grounds on which to preclude its practice."

Some legal experts say while the high court has allowed public prayers in general, it has not set boundaries on when they might become too sectarian in nature.

"The case involves a test between two different kinds of legal rules," said Thomas Goldstein, SCOTUSblog.com publisher and a leading Washington attorney.

"The Supreme Court has broadly approved legislative prayer without asking too many questions. But in other cases where the government is involved with religion, it has looked at lots of different circumstances. So we just don't know whether this court will be completely approving of legislative prayers in this instance."

The justices are now being asked to offer more firm guidelines over when and if such public prayers are constitutionally acceptable.

Felt marginalized

Galloway and Stephens say the elected board of the community outside Rochester almost always invited Christian clergy to open the meetings, usually with sectarian prayers. And they say they felt "marginalized" by the practice.

"When we tried to speak with the town, we were told basically if we didn't like the prayers, we didn't have to listen," said Stephens, "or could stand out in the hallway while they were going on."

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Washington-based group that is representing the two women, cited records showing that between 1999 and 2010, approximately two-thirds of the invocations contained the words "Jesus Christ," Jesus," Holy Spirit," or "Your Son."

And the lawsuit claims that from 1999 through 2007, every meeting had a Christian-only invocation. Following the complaints from the plaintiffs, four other faiths were invited in 2008, including a Baha'i leader and a Jewish lay person.

The plaintiffs say the Christian-only invocations resumed from January 2009 through June 2010. They claim those invited to the monthly meetings were selected by a city employee from a local guide that had no non-Christian faiths listed.

"Politics and religion simply don't mix, and they certainly don't mix in the local context of the Greece town council," said the Rev. Barry Lynn, AUSCS executive director.

"The town seems to take the position that because once or twice over a decade, it hears from someone of a different religion, that somehow is inclusive. It trivializes what's going here - a local government that should be willing and interested in participation of all its citizens, it wants those citizens to participate in an almost inevitably Christian prayer, in order to begin doing their business."

Different rulings

While the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in New York last year unanimously ruled against Greece's policy, other courts around the country have found such invocations - if inclusive and limited in scope - to be permissible.

Congress regularly opens its sessions with a prayer. Wednesday's invocation by House Chaplain the Rev. Patrick Conroy began: "Eternal God, we give you thanks for giving us another day. Once again, we come to ask wisdom, patience, peace, and understanding for the members of this people's House."

Nearly 120 members of Congress, mostly Republicans, along with several state attorneys general have filed supporting legal briefs backing the city. So has the Obama administration.

"The history of prayers offered in connection with legislative deliberation in this country makes clear that a legislative body need not affirmatively solicit a court-mandated variety of different religious faiths– from inside and outside the borders governed by the legislative body– in order to avoid running afoul of the Establishment Clause," said Justice Department lawyers' in their amicus brief.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal ministry based in Scottsdale, Arizona, filed the lawsuit on behalf of the Greece Town Board, saying the Supreme Court has upheld the practice of government bodies "to acknowledge America's religious heritage and invoke divine guidance and blessings upon their work."

"A few people should not be able to extinguish the traditions of our nation merely because they heard something they didn't like," said Brett Harvey, an attorney for the group. "Because the authors of the Constitution invoked God's blessing on public proceedings, this tradition shouldn't suddenly be deemed unconstitutional."

Stephens realizes the stakes are high for her community and for the law as a whole. But on a personal level, this legal fight has been tough.

"I've received something of a backlash, both Susan and me," the retired librarian said. "Threatening letters, some vandalism to my property, things like that. The prayers, and all the controversy, it makes you feel like an outcast, like we don't count in our town."

The case is Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway (12-696). A ruling is expected by early summer.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Christianity • Church and state • Courts

soundoff (6,237 Responses)
  1. cinghoa

    I love the very xtian-like response to this situation: “I’ve received something of a backlash, both Susan and me,” the retired librarian said. “Threatening letters, some vandalism to my property, things like that. The prayers, and all the controversy, it makes you feel like an outcast, like we don’t count in our town.”
    Makes their argument that much sweeter. Endorsing such a "peaceful, loving" religion seems legit when accompanied by these actions when they meet resistance.
    Yeah, praise jeebus

    November 3, 2013 at 5:42 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Intimidation is a tool that has been successfully used by christianity for a very long time. Of course, it's less effective now that they can't legally back it with violence.

      November 3, 2013 at 5:53 pm |
      • Blessed are the Cheesemakers

        r u talking to donkey punch?

        November 4, 2013 at 12:14 am |
  2. AvdBerg

    Why have a debate in the Highest Court when people's prayers are all in vain and why are they all in vain (Matthew 15:9)?

    God heareth not sinners: but if any man be a worshipper of God, and doeth his will, him he heareth (John 9:31). In fact God heareth where two or three are gathered in His name (Matthew 18:20).

    What does it mean to be a sinner?

    All those that call themselves Christians are not necessarily followers of Jesus Christ, but rather followers of an image of a false god and a false Christ (Matthew 24:24).

    For a better understanding of the above article and the history of 'Christianity', we invite you to read the articles 'Can Christianity or Any Other Religion Save You?', 'What is Sin?', 'Victory over Sin' and 'The Decline and Fall of a Divided Nation (Matthew 12:25)' listed on our website http://www.aworlddeceived.ca

    All the other pages and articles listed on our website explain how and by whom this whole world has been deceived as confirmed in Revelation 12:9, and what mankind must do to be reunited with the true and living God.

    November 3, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
    • tallulah13

      This comment is a commerical advertisement for AvdBerg.

      November 3, 2013 at 5:41 pm |
      • AvdBerg

        @ Tallulah 13

        It is not an advertisement but the wisdom and knowledge of God according to the Spirit of truth; whom the world cannot receive (John 14:17).

        November 3, 2013 at 5:45 pm |
        • tallulah13

          You are using comments on this blog in an attempt to get people to go to your website. How is that not a commercial advertisement?

          November 3, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
        • midwest rail

          " It is not an advertisement..."
          Nonsense. If it wasn't an ad, you would never include the web address of your site. Justify your thievery any way you wish, but it remains thievery.

          November 3, 2013 at 5:52 pm |
      • Observer

        Yes, AvdBerg shouldn't be allowed to advertize here, especially since he/she is such a hypocrite.

        November 3, 2013 at 5:51 pm |
  3. Swearing Oaths

    I thank you that they cannot pray. They cannot depend on you for help, ever. And loving it

    November 3, 2013 at 5:16 pm |
  4. Swearing Oaths

    And lord, if they enjoy anything in life, replace it with infected sores and constant, unrelenting pain and humiliation. Amen

    November 3, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
    • Observer

      lol.

      Troll FAILED.

      November 3, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
      • Swearing Oaths

        Amen. As her cancer eats away the rest of her damaged lungs, remind her in the still of the night how she has earned her fate and deserves death, a slow agonizing miserable brutal lonely demise! Glory

        November 3, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
        • Observer

          I'm not a Christian. I wouldn't wish that on anyone.

          November 3, 2013 at 5:35 pm |
  5. Swearing Oaths

    May they cook in the blood they shed as they murdered your children throughout history

    November 3, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
    • Observer

      Looks like faith/ hharri/ fake Observer/ etc. is still trolling.

      November 3, 2013 at 5:14 pm |
      • Yep

        That was my alias once

        November 3, 2013 at 5:46 pm |
        • Spotter

          Most of us can recognize your ugly mug a mile away, bethfaithany.

          The game is old and over, kid.

          November 3, 2013 at 5:54 pm |
  6. Swearing Oaths

    Take their blaspheming words and thoughts and blast them at jet engine volume in hell forever as they beg u for mercy.

    November 3, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      shweet christian compassion at work

      November 3, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • Caritas

      Troll, your bridge misses you, please go back under it.

      November 3, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  7. Well, since Jeebus is taking his own sweet time with his HOLY WRATH

    I think I'm going to go have myself an anti-christurd luncheon.

    BYE SEAN! It's been fun proving you are a horrible Christian! THANKS FOR PLAYING THE GAME SO WELL!

    Satan thanks you too, by the way.... You've served Him and His Path well today, my son.

    November 3, 2013 at 5:09 pm |
    • Just Call Me Lucifer

      I'm so much cooler than god. Ask anybody.

      November 3, 2013 at 7:26 pm |
  8. Swearing Oaths

    Even so lord Jesus, for it seemed good in your sight.

    November 3, 2013 at 5:07 pm |
  9. Dear Jeebus - why is SEAN LYNCH such a HYPOCRITE?

    Didn't he hear you COMMAND him to not be judgmental?

    Why can't your followers do what you COMMAND them to do?

    WHY ARE THEY SUCH HATEFUL FRUCKS?

    November 3, 2013 at 5:05 pm |
  10. HotAirAce

    Did Sunday School just get out?

    November 3, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
  11. Our Golden Future

    "Look Mommy! What are those monkeys doing?" "The book calls it 'praying', dear. And those aren't monkeys. They are called atavists."

    November 3, 2013 at 4:59 pm |
  12. CHRISTURDS calling themselves booty + funk

    Because JEEBUS was always talking about smelly va.ginal and a.nal orifices.

    November 3, 2013 at 4:54 pm |
    • Charm Quark

      The name stealing trash has again surfaced, disgusting.

      November 3, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
  13. bootyfunk

    Fear lord, thank you that u cannot hear these demons as they pray for mercy.

    November 3, 2013 at 4:51 pm |
  14. 2 + 2 ≠ 5

    AND I DON'T HAVE TO RESPECT YOU IF YOU BELIEVE SO.

    Why? BECAUSE YOU ARE A DELUDED F.UCK.

    November 3, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
  15. "We accept anyone who wants to come in and volunteer to give the prayer to open up our town meetings."

    REALLY?

    I belong to a militant, violent, anti-Christian religion who supports burning any of the vermin we can track down in the middle of the town square. We do this while we dissect their children in front of them while they burn. We make sure that the fire burns slowly, with no smoke, so they don't die easily, soon, or with any surcease from pain and suffering.

    CAN I PLEASE HAVE MY TURN TO SAY A PRAYER, PLEASE?

    November 3, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      Ummmmm. . .

      No! :^ ))

      November 3, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
      • Then let's keep religion OUT of our government then

        You seem to have made my point for me.

        THANK YOU.

        November 3, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
        • Go ahead

          No one said you can't pray, you just can't kill anyone.

          November 3, 2013 at 5:00 pm |
    • Sean Lynch

      Dear god, squash this ant

      November 3, 2013 at 4:57 pm |
      • God

        Dear Sean,

        I am this ant. Welcome to pantheism.

        Love,
        God

        November 3, 2013 at 5:11 pm |
  16. Sarah

    Atheists are miserable joy killers. I personally can't stand their constant battle against prayers but whatever. I suppose they are the same ones who make a big stink about Christmas trees and want the name changed to Atheist tree or something. I personally wouldn't do a public prayer at a government place just cause it's not my style and I pray privately. I guess they can sue all they want that's their right. Government association meetings will have to hold prayer before the public arrives and ensure that no atheists are within earshot lest they cry and make a big deal of it.

    November 3, 2013 at 4:24 pm |
    • Igaftr

      Thinking it isn't a big deal is your first mistake.
      It is very much a big deal. Perhaps not to you, but certainly to others.

      If it it not a big deal, why does it need to go to the highest court in the country...certainly many others with far more knowledge of const!tutional law feel it is a big deal.

      November 3, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • fyi

      Sarah,

      Guess who is SUING...? Answer: The case is Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway (12-696). IOW, The Town of Greece, N.Y. is SUING.

      November 3, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      Shall we apply the same criteria to Muslim prayers in public meetings. Or how about prayers to Satan, Thor, Zeus, Krishna, Bast, Ra or the myriad of other deities that would make Christians wet themselves in indignation?

      November 3, 2013 at 4:30 pm |
      • mjbrin

        hmmmm, it is in GREECE, NY.
        so Zeus does seem more appropriate. I do like Athena and Apollo too. I wonder what they are thinking about all of this right now..

        November 3, 2013 at 4:33 pm |
        • L

          I wouldn't mind. America is a place where any person can believe their religion and not be persecuted for following it. It's people who have a strong desire not to share it.

          November 3, 2013 at 4:38 pm |
        • hawaiiguest

          You're missing the point completely.

          November 3, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
        • Igaftr

          Athena and Apollo are two of the schools in the district, and you aren't allowed to start the day with prayer there either.

          November 3, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
      • Bring em on

        I can handle any deity, lets have a happy Bast-ille day if it works for you.
        One thing is true about most celebrations food and fireworks.

        November 3, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
    • truthprevails1

      How about a Pagan Blessing or perhaps a Rain Dance to go with that? Do you see how this works? If you allow representation by one system of belief you must then open the door for all others. It's all or none, you live in a Secular country :-).

      November 3, 2013 at 4:35 pm |
      • Bring em on

        A rain dance sounds like something we've all been missing out on. Pagan blessings too. I know I haven't heard many before.

        November 3, 2013 at 4:39 pm |
    • poopmeister

      Wouldn't it be that the Cristians are "making a big deal of it"? Seperation of Church and State is one of the backbones of our country, why does it need to change? Interjecting prayers and God is mostly a product of the 50's. Weren't they going against the norm back then?

      November 3, 2013 at 4:36 pm |
    • bootyfunk

      Donkey punch is taking it really hard

      November 3, 2013 at 4:40 pm |
    • Kris

      "It's not a big deal"...

      ....unless a Muslim pray was read aloud during each town meeting. Then you'd hear some real outrage!!!

      November 3, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
    • tallulah13

      Well, golly Sarah. I'm sorry that danged old Constitution won't let you force your religion on everybody. It must just be terrible for you that the beliefs of everyone in this country (even non-belief) are equally protected by law. Equality and fairness must really suck the fun out of your life.

      Since it's so awful, maybe you should go live in a land where religion is the law - say Iran. I bet you'd just love it there!

      November 3, 2013 at 4:46 pm |
      • Meredith S.

        True. How will we survive?

        November 3, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
      • Meredith S.

        R u seriously suggesting that america isn't repressing ur religious views?

        November 3, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
    • Because you're such a GOOD CHRISTURD, right?

      Insult others some more – you're going to HELL:

      MATTHEW 5:21

      "...anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell."

      INSULT PEOPLE AND FRY YOU HYPOCRITICAL FAT SOW.

      November 3, 2013 at 4:48 pm |
    • rambo

      that's what i njoy the most about them. besides how funny they r, they bathe and swim in and live and breathe misery and self-pity

      November 3, 2013 at 6:39 pm |
    • One one

      I know, it sucks not being able to push your fantasy religion on people anymore.

      November 3, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  17. lol??

    What's with all the SWAT teams?? Coup practice by PUblic Servants??

    November 3, 2013 at 4:13 pm |
    • CSinSC

      ??

      November 3, 2013 at 4:23 pm |
  18. L

    How does someone praying force atheists to believe? Isn't that delusional for atheists to think?

    November 3, 2013 at 3:52 pm |
    • Billy

      How does someone misunderstand the problem so badly. Oh, trolling, I see – nevermind.

      November 3, 2013 at 3:57 pm |
    • Igaftr

      How does belief justify intrusion into government?

      November 3, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
    • wth

      how hard is it to be respectful of other people and not force your religion onto them? religion should not be a part of the workplace unless the workplace itself is dedicated to religion.

      November 3, 2013 at 4:06 pm |
    • L

      Praying isn't "forcing" anything onto your life. That means all prayers towards whatever god or gods they are praying to. Yes, I'm defending that all beliefs have the right to prayer not just my own. Prayer isn't "intruding" on your life. You want it to so it gives you a reason to complain. Nothing is being forced upon you. That's just your delusion.

      November 3, 2013 at 4:31 pm |
      • poopmeister

        So what if someone got up before a government meeting and talked about how the "blacks" are a scourge on this country and started talking about eradicating all minorities, etc, etc. Wouldn't someone put a stop to that before the next meeting? It is the SAME EXACT THING! If you do not agree with something, sure you don't have to listen to it or buy into it but when someone is talking about something that is completely offensive to some, that's not cool. Atheists find the notion of God to be offensive in our modern society. I don't think that they are "angry" but its like being the adult in a room full of kids talking about Santa and you have to weigh your options if you should let them in on the truth or not....It's makes everyone uncomfortable.

        November 3, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
        • L

          YOU find it offensive does not mean everyone else does. Preaching literal hate is different FROM praying which is a connection between the believer and their god(s). It has nothing to do with you but of course many atheists are control freaks who act like the "fundies" they attack.

          November 3, 2013 at 4:50 pm |
        • hawaiiguest

          @L

          You really don't get it do you L?
          This isn't about individuals praying, it's about a public entity, which is supposed to represent EVERYONE, putting one specific religious view ahead of others.

          November 3, 2013 at 4:52 pm |
      • wth

        of course everyone has the right to pray. nobody wants to change that. but forcing a prayer during the town board meeting when certain people have said that it makes them uncomfortable is disrespectful and only alienates those members of the community. if a town has a majority of white supremacists, should they be able to give a short speech about how grateful they are to be white? they have their freedom of speech and they're not saying anything bad about not being white, but non-whites present would likely be uncomfortable with it and ask for the practice to be stopped. should the practice cease or should the non-whites just get deal with it and stop whining?

        town meetings are places to collectively try to improve the town and everyone should be welcome and feel comfortable being there. if a group want to ask for their god's guidance before these events, they should get together beforehand and do it separately, not force it onto everybody there, especially when people have stated that they are uncomfortable with it.

        so again i ask, how difficult is it to be respectful of other people and not force your religion onto them? the answer: not difficult at all. prayer has no relevance to the task at hand and should not occur during these meetings when community members have asked for it to stop. you people are bullying minorities because you can't get your way and it is unacceptable.

        November 3, 2013 at 5:24 pm |
      • One one

        So pray all you want, in private. Why do you need to make a public display of it? Won't god grant your wishes if you don't ?

        November 3, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
  19. Tally

    It's pretty simple, and I don't understand how these "Christians" have never read Matthew 6:6

    "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."

    November 3, 2013 at 3:51 pm |
    • Context matters

      Please don't be like those Christians that quote a single verse out of context and try to build a meaning out of it that isn't there. That verse was part of an entire section about people who give and pray not because they truly wish to glorify God, but give and pray for show. Read verses 1-6 together.

      November 3, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
      • camd

        Pretty relevant to this situation, I would think.

        November 3, 2013 at 4:21 pm |
        • Context matters

          You are so certain of their motives how?

          November 3, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
      • Tally

        Why not read the entire Sermon on the Mount? My point still stands.

        November 4, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
  20. One one

    There is only one reason to make a public display of prayer. That is to take the opportunity to promote the religious enterprise to an audience and perpetuate the image that religion is normal.

    November 3, 2013 at 3:40 pm |
    • William

      Or.. and this is going out on a limb here I know, to actually seek the wisdom, guidance, and blessing of God.

      November 3, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
      • tallulah13

        If a person needs permission and help from a super-being for which there is no evidence, perhaps this person should not be involved in public policy making.

        November 3, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
        • Two two

          Or perhaps that person is humble enough to acknowledge that they don't know everything.

          November 3, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
      • EnjaySea

        That's definitely going out on a limb since the existence of god is unestablished.

        November 3, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
        • Two two

          His existence also hasn't been proven to be false either. Try to be more optimistic about life. You'll be a happier person.

          November 3, 2013 at 6:38 pm |
        • EnjaySea

          There's nothing pessimistic about withholding belief in something for which there is no evidence.

          It's neither optimistic, nor pessimistic. It's a neutral stance.

          November 4, 2013 at 11:57 am |
      • One one

        Can't that be done without a public display ?

        November 3, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
    • Two two

      There is only one reason to make a public display of atheism. That is to take the opportunity to promote the atheistic enterprise to an audience and perpetuate the image that atheism is normal.

      That works both ways.

      November 3, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
      • EnjaySea

        Except atheists don't stand to gain cold, hard cash by convincing people of their world view. It's in the church's financial interest to propagate their world view, which is a good reason to ignore everything they say and do.

        November 3, 2013 at 3:58 pm |
      • tallulah13

        Oddly enough, there is no one to push atheism into government-sanctioned events. We are merely trying to remove overt religious displays and activities. When you remove references to specific beliefs you create an even playing field. See how that works?

        November 3, 2013 at 4:00 pm |
        • Two two

          So even though 89% of us all want it the other 11% are going to make everyone else suffer.

          November 3, 2013 at 6:40 pm |
        • Bruce McClure

          Who suffers if we don't ask for guidance from some supreme being at our government meeting? I know, most politicians need all the help they can get, but asking for it from a god, or witch, or any other mythical figure, seems extreme.

          November 4, 2013 at 12:52 am |
      • MoxRox

        Atheism is normal. Why would you suggest otherwise?

        November 3, 2013 at 4:16 pm |
      • One one

        What atheist enterprise ? Do they have a Vatican, or basilicas, or mega- churches, TV preachers, or churches on every street corner, or tax exemptions, etc. Get real.

        November 3, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Other One

      Since political figures of some sort are involved, I'd say it is to build up credentials as God-fearing folk – an easy way to seem warm, moral and electable, they believe.

      November 3, 2013 at 3:55 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.