Let us pray? Supreme Court divided on God in government
November 6th, 2013
12:18 PM ET

Let us pray? Supreme Court divided on God in government

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.

MORE ON CNN: Town prayers need less Jesus, more Krishna

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Atheism • Belief • Church and state • Courts • Culture wars • Discrimination • Interfaith issues • Prayer • Religious liberty • Traditions

soundoff (1,319 Responses)
  1. Rainer Braendlein

    "So I can't see how you can compose a prayer that is acceptable to all these" religions."

    This sentence is meaningless.


    Of course it is possible to venerate a higher being which created heaven and earth independent from the own belief. The order of the creation is a clear proof for the existence of such a higher being. It is very unlikely that this higher being wishes our mutual (assured) destruction because in that case he better had not created us. The simple fact that he has created us should us lead to mutual love in order to preserve each others life. If we live such a love we are certainly in accord with the higher being. Such I live of love must be the actual adoration of the invisible God.

    The special thing of Christianity is that it reveals a way to get this unselfish love towards every human being. Let us be honest. By nature we are selfish. Love of neighbour is a thing which we cannot produce in ourselves but which must be given to us from outside. This is the core matter of Christianity: How to get unbiased love.

    However a lip servic through which he or she venerates the unknown higher being should be possible for everybody independent from his or her belief. Yet a lip service is not yet the perfect adoration of God. The perfect adoration of God is when we give our body as a living sacrifice, that means when we overcome our selfish nature through Jesus' love which he can give us.


    November 6, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      "Let us be honest. By nature we are selfish. Love of neighbour is a thing which we cannot produce in ourselves but which must be given to us from outside."
      +++ speak for yourself. if you can't find love of a neighbor without god, you are a in a very sorry state indeed. you think you can't love your brothers and sisters without belief in an invisible sky fairy? i assure you that you can. religion teaches people to love their neighbor? lol. take a look around the world at religious violence.

      be a good person. help your brothers and sisters whenever you can. you don't need belief in a deity to do that.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      Please loosen your tinfoil hat.


      November 6, 2013 at 1:39 pm |
    • Billy

      Rainy is just asking to be Jill'ed. It's only a matter of time.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • tony

      err . .Higher Beings? "Who" may have differing views?

      Mind you I'm not sure a "being" and a "god" are in fact not possible to be the same. The latter has to be "in" the universe and former capable of" being" outside it. Thats' the trouble with trying to imagine the structure/functionality of a god.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
      • tony

        Whoops. I got that former-latter thing reversed – I think. . . where's the Tylenol when you need it.

        November 6, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • Chopper007

      Compassion is part of the human condition. You don't need a god to understand that fact.

      November 6, 2013 at 2:28 pm |
    • rabbitcommarogerindyreader

      Episode XVII, in which Rainer gets right properly schooled by the poster named Bootyfunk.

      November 7, 2013 at 3:55 pm |
  2. Bob

    Either recognize all "Gods" or recognize none.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • aldewacs2

      I'm good with 'none'.
      Keep it private. Why do some people need to impress the Joneses with how preachy they are?

      November 6, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
  3. vidyashanti

    Problem arises when we give words to a prayer. As far as we know prayer in 'silence' is the best form. All religions approve and in fact advocate that form of prayer. Insistence on any verbal prayer essentially promotes a religion or becomes meaningless.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • tony

      you forget the public viewimng of bowed heads

      November 6, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      everyone knows what a moment of silence means.
      why can't they pray outside before they come in?
      gather at one of their houses and pray?
      why is it necessary to pray at work?

      November 6, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
    • Susan StoHelit

      It is an odd religion, that these people have. Their god requires you to pray in public, and to force others to listen, in order to exercise your faith? What religion is this?

      I know it's not Christianity – because in the Bible, Jesus says you should pray in private, in a closet, not in public in order to be seen, as the hypocrites do.

      So perhaps this religion should be called "hypocrites"? The point of the prayer isn't about god, after all, it's about being SEEN to push prayer on others.

      November 7, 2013 at 2:34 pm |
  4. HH

    A nation in moral decline and history repeats itself.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      moral decline? how do you figure that?
      want things back to being upright and good like in the 50s?
      where blacks couldn't vote
      whites and blacks couldn't marry
      yeah, it was real moral back in the day...

      November 6, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
    • Roger that

      Are you saying that removing prayer from a government meeting is a sign of moral decline?

      November 6, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • blf83

      You made a major leap of false logic skipping the meaning of this suit and this article.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      Morals and religion do not always go hand in hand.

      Grow up.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • Billy

      A nation of fundies reaching a level of craziness and history repeats itself. That's why we have the separation of church and state in the first place.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  5. vidyashanti

    Problem arises when we give words to a prayer. As fare as we know prayer in 'silence' is the best form. All religions approve and in fact advocate that form of prayer. Insistence any verbal prayer essentially promotes a religion or becomes meaningless.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      a moment of silence is a thinly veiled prayer.
      why should people who don't want to have to participate even in that?
      why not pray before or after work?
      they've tried moments of silence in schools.
      kids that don't participate are ostracized
      it's deceptively coercive

      if you want to worship an invisible sky fairy
      do it on your own time
      not gov't time

      November 6, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
      • Oakspar77777

        Feeling coerced and being coerced are not the same.

        If you don't believe in God, why would it bother you? Anytime I hear an atheist with anything other than disinterest in religion, I hear a liar, who believes he may be wrong and is lashing out from insecurity.

        November 6, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
        • Chopper007

          You don't understand. We have freedom of speech and freedom from speech too. Likewise we have freedom of religion and freedom from religion. This is especially true when the government is sponsoring the speech/religion. Show a little respect and you might some back in return.

          November 6, 2013 at 2:33 pm |
        • aldewacs2

          Your ignorance is impressive.

          November 6, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
        • rabbitcommarogerindyreader

          I've told this story before recently on other forums like this one. When I was in 2nd, 3rd and 5th grade in a small town in Indiana in the mid '70's, there was a religious organization that came to our public school distributing new testaments. They'd put a box on a big table in the front of the room and wait while anyone who wanted one came up and took it – so, y'know, it was "optional." But it was also very obvious that the teacher would watch who did and who didn't take one. is being 'tricked' into giving away what is a private piece of information about yourself acceptable? Really? How is the kid who doesn't take one expected to believe they're being treated equally to all the others? I sure didn't, and other, later and fortunately minor, incidents proved to me that they did indeed keep track. I wasn't "offended" – I was given cause to believe I wasn't treated the same as the other students. How do you defend this?

          November 7, 2013 at 4:11 pm |
      • Susan StoHelit

        It can be prayer – but then it can be meditation, or a time to gather your thoughts. Not a horrible thing.

        And as atheists know, also an interesting time to look around and see who else is looking around.

        November 7, 2013 at 2:35 pm |
  6. grossbard

    Keep it out of schools and don't force me to participate in any way. Otherwise, go for it, no skin off my ass

    November 6, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  7. Mary

    Scalia actually believes in the devil. as a person. I mean, if someone believes in some magical evil man that makes bad things happen, I think that should disqualify you from serving on the supreme court as much as if you believed in the Easter bunny and tooth fairy. It should really be a big red flag against your ability to logically fulfill the letter of the law.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      he's a christian that really believes the devil walks the earth. gee, wonder if he'll decide against letting people push christianity on others...

      November 6, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • You all are ridiculous

      There is proof, you know.


      November 6, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
      • Roger in AZ

        Reporter: Why do you keep this toaster?

        Lady: When everything is all said and done it makes great toast!


        November 6, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
  8. are122

    They should do just like they did with schools, get God out and put guns in. Fact is, if all politicians were required to carry guns there may end up less politicians,

    November 6, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • tony

      Amen and Bang! Bang!

      November 6, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • Joe Richardson

      There would be FEWER politicians.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  9. Mary

    When I was young, I was very religious. I've sort of..changed. I dont need it anymore, sort of like I dont need santa to be real. It's not that I dont believe there is possibly anything, a force, something, but I feel slightly uncomfortable about absolute belief to some guy, or "just know jesus loves you.." type stuff. Mostly, I think we have in each of us, in our DNA, the knowledge of what is decent and what we should do and we should do it because it's right. Period. Not for a mansion in the sky, not for some reward later, i mean, that's just being self serving, isn't it??? that's not being good! If these women dont want to hear it, dont want to have their meeting begin with the prayers to some pretend men in the sky who dont exist, if that feels absurd to them, if they'd prefer the meetings me grounded in reality and good conscious decisions..I dont blame them. I think less "god will fix everything" and more "gee, WE need to figure out how to fix things" is clearly what this world needs.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • Bootyfunk


      November 6, 2013 at 1:28 pm |
  10. Bruce Wayne

    I'm Batman

    November 6, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      Good for you! Now go play with Putin like a good boy.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:23 pm |
  11. CommonSensed

    *cough* First Amendment *cough*

    Freedom from, please. Thank you.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:15 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      The "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion to another ... in the words of Jefferson, the [First Amendment] clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between church and State' ... That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach."

      November 6, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
      • Mary

        exactly. and what is praying when you're having a town meeting??? that IS setting up a church, it is requiring worship before a government meeting. I would feel it was totally inappropriate. So many bad decisions are made because of religious beliefs. No birth control for catholic. how'd that work, eh???? did wonders for keeping catholics dirt poor, with HUGE mortality rates of babies and mothers, and neglect and abuse as catholic families swelled to sizes completely unmanageable. and when you ask, why? why does everyone have all these kids they can't even feed ???? because the church says.....

        November 6, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
  12. ?

    The reincarnated Judge Roy Bean would get this country straightened out right quick.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
  13. Bootyfunk

    it is beyond ridiculous that the judges are even considering letting prayer go on in a gov't setting. they know the right answer, but they're mostly christian themselves and don't want to take away christianity's special status of being held above all other religions. this is clearly pushing your religion on others.

    want to pray?
    pray at home, pray at a church, pray at a park
    pray before work, pray after work, pray at lunch outside
    you don't get to pray at gov't meetings on gov't time in a gov't building
    stop pushing your religion on others

    November 6, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • History Repeats

      One needs just to look at he founding father's of our nation. The nation was founded on judeo-christian principles. The sep of Church and State was to keep the state out of the church not the other way around. This was a result of King Henry the VIII making hismelf the head of the Church of England so that he could break away from the Catholic church so that he could divorce his wife. If the atheists are so sure that there is no God, then they should not worry if people pray to something that they are sure does not exist.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
      • tony

        But not paying gov'yt salaries while it's happening.

        November 6, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
      • Redleg56

        There is no such thing as "judeo-Christian". Jews are not ritual cannibals for one thing. We do not believe in original sin, divine impregnation nor do we have any scriptures in Greek.

        November 6, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
      • Bootyfunk

        "The nation was founded on judeo-christian principles."
        +++ wrong. and at any rate, judeo-christian principles were lifted from previous religions/mythologies.

        " The sep of Church and State was to keep the state out of the church not the other way around."
        +++ completely wrong. it's both. they were protecting the gov't from becoming a christian theocracy.

        November 6, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
      • thinkb4speaking

        "The nation was founded on judeo-christian principles." - please list these principles that are uniquely Judeo-Christian, and cannot be found in early civilizations.

        November 6, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
      • Lamental Jester

        "One needs just to look at he founding father's of our nation. The nation was founded on judeo-christian principles."

        False, the founding fathers were Deists, not Theists. Hence a reason why they used the word "Creator" instead of the word "God" in the Declaration of Independance. The word "Creator" is a more broad term that doesn't have to necessarily mean a supreme being. Creator can mean anything from a God to just simply nature

        November 7, 2013 at 12:49 pm |
  14. CommonSensed

    I'm hoping they fire and no longer have Congressional and Senate chaplains.

    November 6, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • Doris

      I think it's coming to that one day soon. Then James Madison's wishes will finally be addressed.

      November 6, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  15. Roger that

    Give a man a fish, and you'll feed him for a day; give a man a religion, and he'll starve to death while praying for a fish.

    November 6, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
    • Maddy


      November 6, 2013 at 12:58 pm |
      • ?


        November 6, 2013 at 1:09 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      Is that called faith-eating?

      November 6, 2013 at 1:11 pm |
      • tony

        Saving yoiur Sole. . .

        November 6, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • Bootyfunk


      November 6, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • ME II

      Give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day...
      Teach a man to fish and he'll eat for a lifetime...
      Teach a man to preach and he'll never have to fish again!

      November 6, 2013 at 1:21 pm |
    • Hook, Line and Sinker

      "Ye shall be fishers of men"

      - Bait 'em
      - Hook or net 'em
      - Kill 'em
      - Gut 'em
      - Eat 'em or sell 'em

      The guy who thought up that analogy was very silly.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • Alias

      I will be borrowing this.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
  16. Taxpayer

    My God call all of his followers home now! Please!

    Really, I am so sick of gawd's people...

    November 6, 2013 at 12:38 pm |
  17. Mark

    Send that diseased black mamba to the firey pit ASAP

    November 6, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      In teh names of Jeebus cast out teh demons – HOOAH!

      November 6, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
  18. Mark

    We pray that every person in our government will be a devout, faithful strong christian. Amen!

    November 6, 2013 at 12:33 pm |
    • Mark

      May all atheists leave our blessed nation, soon. They support donkey punch.

      November 6, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
      • Maddy

        What does this even mean?? Can you explain "donkey punch" and how it relates to belief?

        November 6, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
        • CommonSensed

          @Maddy – Oh please. Use teh googles.

          November 6, 2013 at 1:12 pm |
    • ME II

      We pray that every person in our government will be [an honest, strong citizen, faithful to their oaths of office]. R'Amen!

      November 6, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
  19. I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that

    The First Amendment is a myth in this theocracy.

    November 6, 2013 at 12:22 pm |
  20. Jonathan

    "God save the United States and this honorable Court."


    November 6, 2013 at 12:19 pm |
    • Billy

      Give it time. That will go away too, eventually.

      November 6, 2013 at 12:39 pm |
    • CommonSensed

      "In the name of Mighty Thor I bring my hammer down on this gavel to start up some justicin'!"


      November 6, 2013 at 12:51 pm |
    • King Solomon's test

      If you want God to bless the nation then pray; if not, don't pray.

      Who to pray to?

      -The one true God that has blessed this nation over the past 5 centuries, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Great I AM.

      November 6, 2013 at 3:33 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.