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.
About this blog
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.
Most Atheists are familiar with "the look".
If you don't know what "the look" is that we get from 99.9% of religious people we ever encounter, you are probably among that 99.9%.
The stigma attached to non-belief is akin to coming out as gay in a highly religious community – you are to be shunned just as much for declaring your non-belief as you would for coming out.
Religious people will argue and deny this until they are blue in the face, but they simply refuse to admit it within themselves that they look down on people who don't believe what they do.
exactly. christians express their beliefs. an atheist expresses his. an atheist is ostracized.
If you give them the benefit of the doubt that their (christian) belief is sincere, they are probably very uncomfortable with the knowledge that you are going to hell.
At least they aren't making the travel arrangements for you like in the old days.
The look you get when you encounter Christians? How would we even know you are athiests when we encounter you? I interact with peopleI have never met every day. I have no clue what their religion is, and I rightly never care.
Windy today....one of the Gods must have broke wind.
Judy – you are wrong. There are not 'gods'.
There is just 1 god – Allah. Praise Allah. He is good. AND you get some of those many many many virgins in Heaven.
In fact, when I get there, I will eclipse Wilt the Stilts famous '10000' record within months. And the Big Guy approves of it! (see Adam/Eve Palm 42a pg10).
Crom disagrees with you, girly-man.
"For 27 years I prayed every day of my life for God to heal my son's mental illness," Pastor Rick Warren said.
Need any more proof that prayer doesn't work?
Ever hear of the word "No"? Just because you don't get the answer you want doesn't mean it doesn't work. That's like saying audible conversations don't work because I don't always get what I want.
John 14:13-14 Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it
what abject foolishness your religion is!!!
Jesus wasn't talking to you, moron. He was talking to his preachers. Perhaps you should stick to things you know, rather than speculating about things you don't...
OV – Aside from the fact that there weren't any "preachers" per se back when he's supposed to have said it, the quote above was from a pastor... or doesn't that count?
The only problem is that Rick Warren nover got the message "No". He never got any message at all or he wouldn't keep asking for 27 years, would he? That says to me that either god doesn't care or he doesn't exist.
^^^ Need any more proof that this guy is as ignorant as those he ridicules?
The Atheist Rule #3: Mock or speak evil of that which you don't understand….
God never said he answers ALL prayers, moron. He also doesn't answer the prayers of sinners.
Matthew 7:7 ”Ask, and it will be given to you seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.
what a crock your religion is!!!
Matthew 21:22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.”
what a joke your religion is!!!
Mark 11:24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
what infantile foolishness your religion is!!!
Satan knows Scripture better than most believers and twists it to his own benefit.....
Dyslexic... Even the devil can quote scriptures. But it don't mean a thing...
Dyslexic... But thank you for proving my point though: The Atheist Rule #3: Mock or speak evil of that which you don't understand….
You atheists are so predictable...
If the scriptures don't matter than what do you base your faith on? Seriously, you cherry pick the stuff you like or were told you should like and the rest is flexible. I want to come into your church and say Evolution is real, there is no evidence for any gods, and start reading from a geology book that shows Noah's flood never happened. I bet you'd run to cover your childs ears and grown men and women would start crying and I wouldn't make it out of the room w/o a beating. That's how 'strong' faith is. I would never do that because the church is where you can do and say whatever your faith tells you to do, but when we non-believers see these prayers in our secular government, it's just as ridiculous as the above scenario.
maybe you were not praying hard enough....all those people who die in fires/floods....they just do not praise and worship god enough....... and that little girl with cancer just was not praying hard enough to save her own life.....oh wait.....god only answers the prayers he seems fit.....ba ha ha.....do you people actually listen to your logic..... sorry about your son....hope he is doing well!
90% of the US population believe in God, so why the majority should feel uncomfortable or not have freedom of speech because of a little minority? If you don't believe in God, don't pray, don't go to Church and so on. Leave us, the majority, with our freedom of speech.
the American Taliban
Exactly, and gay men should be given the freedom to perform ora l acts on one another in public. If you don't like it, look the other way, right?
In fact, I think we should have them perform before every Town Meeting. Freedom you know.
You HAVE your freedom yet you deny it to others. You are free to practice in your home and church...why force it on the public?
Nope. not 90%. At best around 73% of polled Americans identifying themselves as Christian in 2012. This is down from 86% in 1990. Of these 73% many don't go to church or even believe in a god. Just like my mother thought of her self as Christian – because of her culture, but never went to church, never prayed, and did not believe in religion
Because as an American, I have an inalienable right to freedom of religion; regardless of what the majority says.
Ever have people under you who did not want to pray, like being in charge of a group of soldiers and the base Chaplin shows up, but felt they'd be outcasts if they didn't participate in a prayer he wants to have spontaneously? As a Sergeant I had to stand up for one soldier who didn't want to pray. All of the other soldiers, and the Colonel Chaplin, stood there and hounded this guy and me. Talk about bully! They can rot in the hell they fear.
Thanks for your service and for sticking up for the little guy.
WHAT's the TAX EXEMPT church FOR!!??
Scalia thinks the devil is real – he needs to go!
Why do people insist they need to pray in schools, or at city council? You know it is going to make people uncomfortable. Pray privately or go pray at your Church or with a church group.
And Sotomayer is right, as an atheist when people start praying an you don't you tend to get some of the dirtiest looks I have ever seen. Almost as if they believe you are some sort of antichrist. For those who don't want to deal with those looks, or the snide remarks, or direct confrontation where people tell you to "accept Jesus", they feel they have to at least pretend to go along with their prayers. And they shouldn't have to.
Keep your religion to your religion to yourself, and we'll keep criticism of you religion to ourselves. Sound fair?
Too fair for the religious to agree to it. If they can't proselytize and force their chosen beliefs upon everyone else all the time they just aren't happy....
Religion has no place in civilized society. It had its time on Earth and it chose to burn woman as witches, stone Humans that procreated with the wrong Human, and commit all manner of atrocity.
Today religion perverts the minds of our young with false hopes and lies about creator creatures and next worlds.
Pathetic. Save it for the poor and the hopeless, they are the only ones you will be able to sell your ignorance to in the future.
"Religion has no place in civilized society."
Why? Civilized societies have had religion within them for thousands of years and here we are.
You show me an advanced society without any history or influence of religion and maybe you might something to work with.
Truth is painful for devilish followers.
Since Scalia has said the Cross isn't a religious symbol, I'll be interested to hear how prayer, isn't a religious incantation.
Scalia is a cancer. he is causing irreparable damage to this great nation.
enough of ENOUGH ALREADY – people like you are bitter and probably have no friends (for obvious reasons) and wants everyone to be bitter and crude like them – people like you should not vote
pray about it and see if your god will make him stop. we all know that'll work, right?
This is so offensive to read. Grownups pandering to imaginary belief systems....CREEPY! Lose the gods people, all fake, Humans have no soul, we're a bloody mammal, and (probably) nothing special happens at death. Deal with it 🙂
Sharon – you will pass on one of these days then you "can deal with it"
Yeah – imagine how silly she'll feel after she dies when Ma'at weighs her heart against a shu feather and it comes up all out of balance!
Plus, she'll probably die quietly in bed instead of bathed in the blood of her vanquished foes on the field of battle – no Valhalla for her!
And how will she ever inherit her own planet over which to rule from the Celestial Kingdom unless she gives the LDS 10% of her annual earnings so she can learn the secret masonic handshakes and passwords needed to get past Joe Smith in the afterlife?
Appears that you and Sharon will have the same experience!
Your passive/aggressive schadenfreude is showing...
Sounds like what you believe is that you ae not special in any shape or form. That anything you have to offer in this life of yours means nothing at all. Any meaning you think the universe has is a delusion.
That about right?
No, that's not what she said at all.
Explain how you could believe in what she said and not come to the conclusion I wrote. You can't say there is nothing to the universe and the turn around and say your life has purpose.
Add to that "there is no such thing as right and wrong" and you have described me.
Sounds like you're inferring your own opinions regarding the irreligious.
Nope, just taking her comment and going to the next logical step.
And if I say that Christians all want to kill their children becuase Heaven is way better than this fleshly life, that's merely a logical extrapolation of what all Christians believe.
Hey..if that's where your logic leads you...you go with it.
Gol, you can't just say Q follows from M and expect everyone to buy it. If you want to convince us lay out the premises and conclusions in an orderly fashion, because the rest of us aren't seeing what you are seeing.
"And if I say that Christians all want to kill their children becuase Heaven is way better than this fleshly life, that's merely a logical extrapolation of what all Christians believe."
This is one of the weirdest things about many forms of Christianity. They set up this system where an aborted fetus would go straight to heaven, so aborting would be the greatest act of kindness for a parent. Then the condemn parents for giving their kids a guaranteed eternal happiness.
Sharon... There's nothing more "imaginary" that someone saying "There is not God", yet don't have a shred of evidence to back it up. Are we suppose to just "imagine" he doesn't exist just because you say so? Or do you have some actual "evidence" to support your ridiculous claim? Thought so...
Why the minority of the country have to impose their ideas over the majority of the country? Majority of this country believe in God, yes 90% as per a Gallup poll in 2011. I think the majority of the country also counts, right? How much do we have to give up in behalf of minority groups? Why do we have to accept being treated in the media like ignorant because we believe in God or we don't believe in abortion and so on? We are losing our core values.
Yeah Anne way to go...Take away the right to vote for black, latinos, asian...they aren't the majority so they don't deserve a say.... for that matter there are more voting age women, so men shouldn't have the vote.... yeah Anne, majority rules, right. Most people have brown eyes, so any with blue or green eyes, don't get a say.
See the problem yet Anne?
Majority rule does not trump civil rights.
You would consider someone ignorant who believes in a Wind God.
You would consider someone ignorant who believes that disease comes from spells or the will of a deity.
You would consider someone ignorant who buries a living baby in a hole to keep a building's foundation stable.
I consider it ignorant for someone to believe in an omnipotent mind-reading being, living after death, eternal life, devils, demons, angels, resurrections, virgins birthing certain folks, etc...
Sorry, but stupid is as stupid believes and the Monotheistic belief systems on Earth currently are truly a pathetic grandiose wonder of Human desire and ego.
Anne, Are you OK with a prayer directed toward the Creator or Divine? I am not a Christian, I believe in a single Creator. The only time I have any problems with someone saying a prayer is when they end it in "In Jesus name, Amen." To me that makes it strictly a Christian prayer and non-inclusive of all faiths.
Please know that I'm not singling you out in any way. It was the way you phrased your post. The statistics, 90% of American's believe in God. It doesn't say Jesus. There is a difference in believing in "God the Creator" and the Christian trinity (Father, Son & Holy Ghost).
You either believe in the supernatural or you don't. Any other difference is splitting hairs.
Who is forcing anyone to pray or bow their heads? Why isn't this protected as freedom of speech? Just because I am doing it with my eyes closed and maybe head bowed shouldn't make one bit of difference. If you don't believe then it shouldn't mean anything more to you than if I am just thinking out loud.
Nobody is going to have a problem with you showing up at a public meeting and praying. Even out loud. You can do so in any public place. Your right to pray is protected by your individual right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech. That is not the same thing as elected government officials starting a government proceeding with a specific religions ritual. That is not private. It is not person. It is government endorsing one religion, and it violates rights of everyone in the room when it's done.
Our government says in God we trust ! Really ! Then whats with all the military ? No matter what people want to believe . The fact still remains that no Jesus and no god every wrote a holy book . The human mammal did ! And thats a fact . No God ever even wrote a prayer . The human mammal did .
Perhaps they should just start the meeting with a moment of silence for quiet reflection or prayer.
or better yet, pray before they get to work and work while at work instead.
Or perhaps those attending those meeting should sort out their spiritual needs before coming to work.
Because it might give the impession that the supernatural is real?
The headline could have just stopped at "High court Divided". Was there any doubt? Jeez, I wish one of the so-called conservative judges would just disappear.
This is a country "of the people" and the people are religious. It is absurd to believe that they can, or should, be separated. A prayer doesn't force anyone to believe in anything. What is really at issue morality. Some get their moral views from the teachings of Jesus or Mohammed, some get it from the teaching of Jefferson or O'Hair. The people vote and we develop the country's moral laws. It gives us a common standard of right and wrong. The separation argument is an act to suppress the moral views of those you don't agree with. It shouldn't matter where someone gets their moral views. Someone acting and expressing their moral views based on religious writings have the same rights as those expressing their moral views based on secular writings.
You would sing a different tune if it was Muslim Prayers.
Allah Ackbar – God is Great. Praise the Lord Allah, the only God! (besides Barry Bonds).
Jesus was just Allah's goat herder. Good profession, but not the real deal.
Y'all should be prayin' to the right God!
In the mid '60's, nearly every single representative from the southern states in both the House and the Senate, whether democrat or republican, voted against racial integration.
And yet the laws changed anyways.
Beware the tyranny of the majority.
So, you would stand and bow your head when a Satanist demands his turn at the podium invoking the name of Satan or an Islamist invoking the name of Allah. Admit it, you would be running for the hills. That is the crux of the problem, if you are not willing to let it all be said, then you must not let any of it be said.
Gather around religious children......SPOILER ALERT.......there is no santa....no easter rabbit....and no god.......silly humans......grow up.....stop being so juvenile......the world is also not flat......dancing around a fire can not make it rain.......and prayer....well.......don't get me started....for all you religious, self important, religious people.......... Do any of you have the slightest idea how old and how vast this universe is? How young our planet is at approx. 4 billion years old? I do not want to get into a science discussion with a religious person ,they never can support their claim without blind faith and providing such useless comments like "only god knows" when presented with a valid question......anyhoo......Humans are not that important.....they are very insignificant....... religious people like to think they are important.......they need a reward system to do the RIGHT thing.....(heaven/hell)......the meanest and most hurtful comments posted on news articles and youtube videos come from RELIGIOUS people......humans are dangerous animals......they are not able to understand why we exist and need to make up a reason........unfortunately they have the intelligence to destroy this planet like they are doing right now!!!! Humans have existed for a very small amount of time on this planet........at best guess.....if Earth's start to present was compared to 12 hours.......12pm to 12am.....humans have only existed a few seconds to midnight..........what a minute amount of time to exist, being as special as we are.....humans will cease to exist someday, and other species will continue.......i do NOT need a god and a reward system to know the difference between right and wrong.....REMEMBER! god LOVES you.......but if you do not worship and praise him he will send you to everlasting pain and suffering!!!
Go away . .
What does the size and age of the Universe have to do with religion or the existence of a creator? Propositional fallacy fail, big time. Smoke a little less pot, work a few hours of overtime at your Circle K job, and take a class at your community college. I suggest starting with "Get a Clue: An Introduction to Living in a Diverse Society".
what a brilliant reply!....Bravo....so creative.....perhaps the information provided, showing how insignificant humans are, was a bit too much for you to understand the point i was making......if i had more time i would love to expand on my comment.....however, if you could not grasp the gist of what i was saying, i think it would take a very long time to explain it to you......
I never saw your post when I posted mine, but we both used the same word. "fallacy" The "Gist" is lost for this VERY reason.
Or as I like to resond to the religious, "of course there is a God, I just choose to disobey Him."
Fine – leave all those gorgeous teenage chicks in Heaven to me then. No laws. No wives. No NFL. Jus' a whole lot of time for rollin' around with the young ladies.
Prove God does NOT exist and you will find it is even harder to prove. No one can prove something does not exist. It is simply impossible to do. So, maybe, just maybe, a creator does exist. You don't really know. Maybe there is only a 1/10000th of 1 percent chance, but that is still a chance. It is better proof than you have that there is no God or Creator. Let people have their own spiritual beliefs. It makes people more comfortable. If they push it in your face you have an argument, but faulting a belief system because you are SO MUCH smarter is a fallacy.
Prove that god does not exist? Prove that he does not? How can you do either? There is a 'chance' either way...just a small one.
Maybe so, I just refuse to worship though.
I agree with everything but one. Santa exists.
Nothing stated about the age of the universe and the timeline of humanity proves there is no God (and I'm not about to try to convince you that there is a God because I don't know). Further, plenty of people who don't quibble with these scientific facts are nonetheless religious and/or spiritual. Your generalizations about the religious are not very helpful and make you sound as closed minded as those you criticize.
Having said all that, I don't understand the need to inject a prayer into the business of government. God will probably understand that the people of Greece NY need to deal with some secular matters now and then.
Why do you refer to God as a male?