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. Dyslexic doG

    When did I realize I was God?

    Well, I was praying and I suddenly realized that I was talking to myself ...

    November 6, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  2. Sarah

    For a country whose founding principles include the separation of church and state, the U.S. sure likes to pander to Christians.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • aldewacs2


      November 6, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
  3. MrHighMighty

    If politicians want to honor and glorify God in their work, they should just focus on doing their jobs with honesty, integrity, and justice. Then when they are asked what motivates and inspires them to be such an effective leader, they can share their internal reasons for their actions and positions, giving credit where it is due (i.e. the role of God in their life). That's what a true Christian does in any line of work in our secular society.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      There are lamentably few Christians who endeavour to lead by example.
      It is more common to encounter smug self-righteousness and/or condemnations of this and that from a fiery pulpit.
      "Yes I am a Christian! Jesus is Lord! Amen! Of course I'm humble! If they gave awards for humility, I'd have three of them."

      November 6, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
  4. robCM

    Prayers belong with the individual and no where else.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  5. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    It's still a conservative court, with outspokenly religious people on it. That will change.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
  6. 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.


    Example: Dear higher being, we adore you watching your marvelous creation. Please reveal us the true religion. Yet, up to the day when you will reveal the true religion towards us we will at least try to love our neighbour, and to abstain from all evil.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • AGeek

      Congratulations, you've alienated every polytheistic belief system. Well done. Next time, think first, then type if it still makes sense.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:53 pm |
    • Today's winner of the Fundy method of inquiry and verification goes to

      Rainer Braednlein!

      How does it work? Like this:


      November 6, 2013 at 1:54 pm |


        November 6, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • grist

      But some religions believe in multiple gods. How do you deal with that? Your prayer to a single god may be inappropriate for them.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • thinkb4speaking

      Please elaborate on,"The order of the creation is a clear proof for the existence of such a higher being.". The last time I checked plants need water and sunlight, but the sun was created a day later.

      November 6, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • G to the T

      I think you may not have read very closely. They specifically tried that and the counter was that it wouldn't be inclusive to polytheisists. It assumes monotheism and that is supporting a specific religious belief above others and not appropriate.

      November 7, 2013 at 7:40 am |
  7. naturechaplain

    A silent moment of reflection/meditation/prayer is the only way in this God-blessed Secular country.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • AGeek

      Blessed by which god? Zeus? Poseidon?

      November 6, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
  8. MusicFan

    People have the right to pray in public if they so choose!! It's called religious rights. If you don't like it then get over it and go somewhere else!!

    November 6, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • WhenCowsAttack

      Reading comprehension isn't your strong point, is it?

      November 6, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
      • AL SANCHEZ

        Oh, go sit on it . . . .

        November 6, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
        • WhenCowsAttack

          Not my fault she completely missed the point of the article.

          November 6, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
    • Doris

      All rights come with responsibilities. Otherwise one can easily step on the toes of another while exercising one's rights. Look at the 9th Amendment and then look again at the Establishment Clause. Then you'll understand why we have many rulings down through U.S. history upholding a firm separation between church and state.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      Preventing you from forcing others into following your deluded rules is not persecution. Preventing you from making religious laws, is not persecution. Preventing you from injecting your fantasies into public schools, is not persecution. You have churches on every street corner in America. You have 100% representation in government. You have your motto imprinted on every dollar bill and uttered at every baseball game. You are the persecutor, not the persecuted. You confuse "not being in charge" with persecution.

      - SP

      November 6, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
      • aldewacs2

        Right on, Dog!
        The "they're picking on us" card is getting to be too much.

        November 6, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
  9. Dyslexic doG

    what hope have atheists have getting a fair decision in the supreme court? the supreme court is a panel of people in the same cult as the ones doing the praying at the town hall meetings! what do you think they are going to end up saying?

    America is a theocracy!!!

    November 6, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
  10. rhaj

    I am atheist. I think I can be accomodating, and let people pray... if it takes a prayer to make people serene.

    Again, it is like with little kid, who needs his/her imaginary friend to get to calm down (or do the right thing).

    So, be it.

    November 6, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • ME II

      Unfortunately, sectarianism has a tendency to produce the opposite effect.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  11. Demigod Vadik, CA

    Of course they are not permitted...

    ...its only in our 1st Amendment...

    ...now, if people want to take a minute and pray on their own before a meeting, they are welcomed to do so...

    November 6, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
  12. Matthew

    The First Amendment is very clear that no law can be made that impedes the free exercise of religion. Since no one is being forced to pray, there is nothing wrong with public prayer.

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

      Please re-read the article and employ reading comprehension.


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

      the first amendment also protects people from being forced to join in a religious ceremony.
      they are very much being forced to sit through it.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
      • Matthew

        Praying is not a ceremony; it's free speech; we all have to sit and listen to speech that we disagree with. Diversity is allowing everyone the right to express themselves.

        November 6, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
        • ME II

          There is a difference between individuals expressing themselves and the government setting aside an allotted time for the dissemination of religious ideology.

          November 6, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      your obvious lack of reading comprehension explains why you don't find the bible laughably contradictory and confusing

      November 6, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
      • G to the T

        LOL... Zing!

        November 7, 2013 at 7:42 am |
    • ME II

      1) freedoms are not absolute and must be balanced with other freedoms such as the Establishment Clause.
      2) this is no "public" prayer, in the sense of someone praying in public, but government sanctioned prayer. The difference being who is endorsing the prayer.

      Anyone can pray in public, within the law, but government endorsed prayer is a different matter.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • jamesbx

      But the Supreme Court already ruled there should be a separation of church and state. People have a right to exercise their religious freedoms, but I would argue they don't have that right when acting on behalf of the state.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
      • Matthew

        So, every President who has said "God bless America" has violated separation of church and state?

        November 6, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
        • Dyslexic doG

          it's called pandering to the voters

          November 6, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  13. CommonSensed

    So here's the trick.

    For the folks who think this is an outrage to even consider removing prayer from government functions then you must be totally cool with them switching from a christian-centric prayer to an islamic-centric prayer and have all their yodeling and whatnot.

    Please use your brain.


    November 6, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  14. KarmaBurns

    Why would an Atheist give a fig about prayer or if it is Christian based? You don't believe in anything, they why be offended over a prayer? The Jewish person should know better than to persecute another religion if they know their history. As a Christian, where is MY freedom to practice as my beliefs lead me to?! You can have your freedom from religion if you want but as a fellow citizen you shouldn't be robbing me of my right to practice my religion as is my right in the First Amendment? Does the 1st Amendment only apply to you?

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

      All or none.

      Too hard for you to grasp?

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

      It should be Allah based.

      Allah is the only true lord. Others are just disciples.

      Praise Allah – Allah Ackbar. God is Great. (My god at least – He be the Man!)

      November 6, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Right on!
      As an Armenian Orthodox Christian, I should be allowed to sacrifice animals before each and every Town Hall meeting.
      Who are you to trample on my religious rights?
      If you don't believe in it, why should you be offended by a little bit of goat blood?

      November 6, 2013 at 1:47 pm |
    • Michael

      They can worship or pray in a church or at home. There is no place for it in government or public meetings.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • Dyslexic doG

      Preventing you from forcing others into following your deluded rules is not persecution. Preventing you from making religious laws, is not persecution. Preventing you from injecting your fantasies into public schools, is not persecution. You have churches on every street corner in America. You have 100% representation in government. You have your motto imprinted on every dollar bill and uttered at every baseball game. You are the persecutor, not the persecuted. You confuse "not being in charge" with persecution.

      - SP

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

      " You don't believe in anything, they why be offended over a prayer?"
      +++ it is exactly because we don't believe in an invisible sky fairy that we are offended.

      pray at home, pray at a church, pray in a park
      you don't get to pray on gov't time while you're supposed to be working

      November 6, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • Scorpius

      Karma Burns: The issue is not about your right to pray when and if you choose to, but it is about any one being forced to observe a religious rite in a public place: You don't have any right to do that. You are a very confused and probably arrogant person., preaching to an atheist and a Jew alike!

      November 6, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
  15. Lee Downie

    Must we drag every second-rate beef into court? I'm surprised the Court agreed to hear this one.

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

      You must not understand religion at all if you can say something like that. This is not just a "second-rate beef".

      Just because you accept that religion is simply going to walk all over other people despite those peoples' legitimate complaints doesn't mean others will lay down and accept it like you apparently have.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
    • Roger that

      This is a bigger issue than you think. Government meetings are not the place to proselytize or endorse your faith.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  16. QS

    There are churches, or bathroom stalls, where prayers can be said.

    Our government is not and should not be in the business of conducting church business, I don't care what your beliefs tell you – if you want to serve in this government, you check your religion at the door and do the work of the people, many of whom do not believe what you believe anyway.

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

      Bathroom Stalls? What an intolerant, hateful, and ignorant thing to say! That is like telling someone in Islam or Shikh (not Islamic by the way) to lay their prayers down in a waste treatment facility. I would love to respect your insight if you hadn't written such an atrocious and vicious put-down. Any prayer anywhere is loved by God.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
      • Doc Vestibule

        "Any prayer anywhere' – so that included from the bathroom stall, correct?
        Members of the Church of the Subgenius practice a type of prayer known as "excremeditiation" that MUST be performed on the potty.

        November 6, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        "Any prayer anywhere is loved by God"


        there is no god, so it follows that prayer is just you talking to yourself.

        what a hoot!

        November 6, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
      • QS

        Yep, about the contradictory reaction from religious people I expect – a prayer in a bathroom stall is offensive, but one to open a government meeting is perfectly acceptable.

        I'd love to respect your beliefs, but no religious person to this day has ever given me a valid reason to.

        November 6, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
      • Susan StoHelit

        Jesus suggested a closet as a correct place to pray, not in public.

        November 7, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
  17. enough already...

    enough.....it is bad enough that i have a worshiped fictional character all around my daily life.....on my money..."in god we trust....in the pledge of allegiance...under god.....and in song....about our country..and numerous more.....ENOUGH.....how would all you religious people like daffy duck or mickey mouse being prayed to daily in a public forum..........just as ridiculous as believing and praying to a god....no place for such juvenile antics.....

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

      It's virtually impossible to get religious people to truly understand the level of frustration that their beliefs cause in our daily lives.....but you are not alone in that frustration, just FYI! 🙂

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

      Have you considered visiting a country that has banned religion? China has no "in God we trust" and we know how kind the State is to their beloved people. Fairy tale? Sure. Because magically evolving from a poof of amino acids is so much more believable. You may not want to give God any credit so you can do what you want without guilt, but stop trying to criminalize those of us who love the Lord. You preach you want tolerance then show absolutely none. Now THAT is acting like a bunch of evolved monkeys. If we did evolve from monkeys, then why do they still exist?

      November 6, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
      • Dyslexic doG

        your ignorance is truly astounding ...

        November 6, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
      • Chopper007

        Show a little respect for those that believe in science over mythology. They are not all unrepentant hedonists. There are plenty of ethical atheists and plenty of evil religionists. Judge their actions not their beliefs. But don't force your beliefs on me and mine it is disrespectful. I will do the same for you.

        November 6, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
      • WhenCowsAttack

        OMG. You are ignorant beyond belief.

        November 6, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
      • Gordon

        What about visiting a country that has gone all-in with state religion? Countries like Iran live "in god we trust" and look at how they treat their people. For a christian example, I can think of Uganda, where they let christian leaders influence their laws so much that they were going to kill anyone for being gay, if not for international outrage.

        November 6, 2013 at 2:46 pm |
      • grist

        You really need to educate yourself about evolution before you start posting about it. Your post betrays a complete lack of understanding. You may be a smart person. But you are not educated about Science. It is ok to not be educated about something (and it does not make you dumb) but you should not try to debate about something you don't understand.

        November 6, 2013 at 3:20 pm |
        • aldewacs2

          Congrats. You kept your cool and were very politically correct with this horses' ass.

          November 6, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
      • Susan StoHelit

        You evolved from your grandparents – do they still exist? Do your cousins still exist, who also evolved from your grandparents?

        If you want to criticize something, it helps to understand it to at least a minimal degree. We evolved from apes (not monkeys), and the apes, and monkeys that exist today, in a family tree way, are our cousins.

        November 7, 2013 at 3:22 pm |
  18. blf83

    The real problem in this case is that the prayers were almost always Christian in focus, especially from the side of very conservative versions of "Christianity."

    November 6, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
  19. norman

    no prayer dur govt meetings-no appropriate-keep that religious nonsense at home

    November 6, 2013 at 1:36 pm |
  20. janer52

    pray if you want to; ignore it if you don't.

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

      Just pray silently while someone is speaking about something else you don't care about. We all know there is plenty of that going on at town meetings.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • Roger that

      I agree. Pray if you want, but keep it to yourself. Keep church at church.

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

      Can we bring in a couple of gay men to have 15 minutes of a nal fun prior to each town meeting? Those that don't want to see it can just look away, or eat their fried chicken.

      November 6, 2013 at 1:43 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.