Supreme Court To Consider Constitutionality of Opening Government Meetings With Prayer

ReasonReasonThe Supreme Court will hear arguments today regarding the constitutionality of holding prayers before government meetings. The New York town of Greece is to argue that opening meetings with a prayer is constitutional, citing previous cases. 

The town's case is being supported by the Obama administration. 

From UPI:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 6 (UPI) -- Lawyers Wednesday readied arguments for the U.S. Supreme Court on the constitutionality of opening government meetings with prayer -- almost always Christian.

A town board in upstate New York, a suburb of Rochester, has opened its meetings for years with a Christian prayer led by a Christian cleric. But a federal appeals court ruled the prayers unconstitutional, finding they endorse Christianity.

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  • playa manhattan||

    Just send an iman to the meeting. That'll take care of the problem pretty quickly.

  • jester||

    Ziggy Stardust's ex?

  • Voros McCracken||

    Like this?

  • playa manhattan||

    Imam. Whatever, nerds.

  • Swiss Servator, I got nothing.||

    "The town's case is being supported by the Obama administration."

    XTIANISTS!!! GODBAGS!!! CHRISTFAGZ!!!! Wait...what?!

    /reflexive prog

  • Brett L||

    Obviously, they should be benched if they aren't respectful of the religious.

  • Swiss Servator, I got nothing.||

    Nice...

  • jester||

    Are US Presidents still sworn in using a bible? (Of course, Obama was sworn in using a Quran with a fake cover). Is that Constitutional?

  • Zeb||

    They have the option of making an affirmation rather than swearing an oath. And the oath doesn't have to be on a Bible either.
    But every president does because apparently you have to pretend to be a devout Christian to be president.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Franklin Pierce affirmed.

  • Zeb||

    Did Nixon? Wasn't he a Quaker? I thought they didn't swear oaths.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Hoover and Nixon were both Quakers, and from the news reports I read (NYT) they both swore.

    Nixon was also flexible on the whole war thing.

  • William of Purple||

    what about a prayer to Obama maybe?

  • ||

    Look you can pray to Obama all you want, but it'll never get past his underlings. I've been praying to his gloriousness for a new kidney for months, but my prayers are stuck on the desk of St. Sebelius. I think we all know how well that's going. If only Obama would hear my prayers, I'm sure I'd have more kidneys than I knew what to do with.

  • jester||

    Stupid. You have to go online: Omnibama.god
    It's a pretty nifty website. Click on *prayer*

  • ||

    It looks like a website, but I'm having trouble getting through to the "submit" function. Maybe I'm doing something wrong?

    Perhaps if I flail statuettes of St. Biden (patron saint of lost causes) at my monitor it will work.

  • playa manhattan||

    404 error

  • William of Purple||

    only because you lack faith.

  • jester||

    Farabi connection error. C'mon. He's a mooslim.

  • William of Purple||

    What if the prayer is performed by an Atheist minister?

  • jester||

    That's essentially an oxymoron. But howzabout cults? Progressives, Jehovah's Witness, Mormon, wiccans, Catholics, Shakers, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Christian Scientists, Unitarians, Baptists, Lutherans and all their ilk?

  • Doctor Whom||

    How about an Adamite minister?

  • Zeb||

    Religion and atheism aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. I think that Buddhism, for example, doesn't require belief in a deity. (Any Buddhists around here can correct me if I am wrong).

  • ||

    Kind of?

    I would ask HM, I'm 10 years out from having actively studied Buddhism, but you're still reconciling oneself to something bigger and cosmic in Buddhism it's just not a beardy god of thunder and fire sitting on a mountain.

  • Zeb||

    I guess it depends on what you consider a deity. I tend to think of theism as involving some sort of person-like being. I wouldn't necessarily say that atheism has to be entirely materialistic either.

  • ||

    Depending on the branch of Buddhism you end up with humanized deities, that function similarly to saints in Catholicism.

    There was a joke in Korea when they'd talk about religion saying that some Koreans were Buddhist, some Catholic and some Protestant, but all of them were Confucians to their core. Confucianism is a totally agnostic life philosophy that under-girds other belief structures and might hit a little closer to an atheistic religion.

  • Zeb||

    The same kind of overlap seems to work at least with some kinds of Buddhism as well. Leonard Cohen comes to mind. He's Jewish and Buddhist and doesn't see any conflict there.

  • jester||

    Also, the prayers are always innocuous. There need to be some prayers like:
    'Lord, we would that you smite the mayor with a pox should he not obey the will of...', something along those lines.

  • Sevo||

    Why in the world did this get to the supremes? Neither your religion nor anyone elses' has any place in a government function.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Sevo,

    Neither your religion nor anyone elses' has any place in a government function.


    Denying your fellow citizens their right to say a prayer if they want to is in direct violation of not only the 1st Amendment of the Constitution but also of natural law. We're not talking about sacrificing a prisoner of war on the altar of Huichilopoztli [by the way, that being the correct spelling]. As long as I am not being compelled to participate, I say: live and let live.

  • Zeb||

    If the people who want to pray want to get together before the meeting and pray, or if they want to pray quietly while the meeting is going on, no one should stop them. But insisting that it be part of the official proceedings is something else. Even if the prayers are non-denominational or whatever, they are still generally going to be Judeo-Christian in Greece, NY and that is government promoting a particular religion.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Zeb,

    But insisting that it be part of the official proceedings is something else


    Why? What difference, at this moment, does it make?

    Seriously, there is no legal or moral reason to stop a group of people from starting a meeting with a prayer, even if these are elected officials. I want to know what is the harm, exactly? Whose rights are violated? Where's the victim?

  • ||

    " I want to know what is the harm, exactly? Whose rights are violated? Where's the victim?"

    Our tax dollars are being used for the proceedings.

  • GroundTruth||

    And on my time, if I happen to be at the meeting.

  • Zeb||

    I just have a broader reading of the establishment clause than you do, I guess.

    I really don't get worked up about this sort of thing. Any harm caused is pretty negligible. We aren't in much danger of becoming a theocracy, I don't think. But I do enjoy arguing about it and if I have to pick a side, then I think religion should generally be kept out of official government business.

  • Tony||

    Describe how one might go about compelling you to participate in a prayer being conducted as a part of civic business at a meeting you are attending. Might it not look quite a bit like everyone bowing their heads in prayer and you being forced to either participate against your will, or else noticeably refrain?

  • Live Free or Diet||

    Neither your religion nor anyone elses' has any place in a government function.

    True, but that doesn't make it unconstitutional. The 1st Amendment prohibits Congress from passing a law respecting an established religion. It does not say the local irrationalist cannot beg the Flying Spaghetti Monster to touch all there with a Meatball of Wisdom from His Noodly Goodness.

  • Zeb||

    Let's get this right, at least:

    "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof".

  • ||

    If it does get struck down as unconstitutional, might I suggest replacing prayer with a town ballad?

  • ||

    No no, you need something more heroic.

  • Jose Chung||

    Rather than prayer, why don't office holders recite their oaths of office before government meetings? They can all do with the daily reminder.

  • DJF||

    Is this the prayer they are talking about, if so it would be perfect for any politician.

    Lord Satan, Horned One of the Sabbath.
    I come before you, alone, my soul exposed.
    In complete devotion, I kneel.
    Receive this from me, my greatest desire.
    You are my Master,
    and I am your Chosen.

  • Brett L||

    Only if they have to deliver the Witch's Kiss to the dirtiest bum we can find.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    So every other constitutional issue has been addressed, leaving the Court time to address this - let's face it - relatively trivial one?

  • Auric Demonocles||

    They resolved the rest by calling things a tax.

  • jester||

    No. It's probably someone's idea to send the religious conservatives into a tizzy. Who that someone is is anyone's guess. I bet it was borne out of a bar bet.

  • Brett L||

    Not to worry. It will work. They'll overreact and funds will be generated for all political stripes.

  • Swiss Servator, I got nothing.||

    Always a safe bet!

  • ||

    The Court seems to love a good free speech or Establishment Clause case.

    If they'd take time to address 'Bong Hits 4 Jesus' I'm sure they'd take time for this.

  • Metazoan||

    Yeah I can't say I give much of a shit. I guess they'll call the prayer a tax...er...prax?

  • Auric Demonocles||

    What's the constitutionality of pictures with no alt-text?

  • Swiss Servator, I got nothing.||

    Isn't that treason?

  • OldMexican||

    The town's case is being supported by the Obama administration


    ... in direct violation of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution, BTW.

  • Zeb||

    Make up your mind, dude. DO you want them to be allowed to have the prayer or not?

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Zeb,

    Make up your mind, dude. DO you want them to be allowed to have the prayer or not?


    The federal government cannot stifle a person or persons' right to freely express their religion according to the 1st Amendment of the Constitution ("or prohibiting the free exercise thereof",) which means the Obama administration is forbidden by the Constitution to offer or give their support to a cause that violates the same constitution they swore to defend.

    Better?

  • John Thacker||

    And of course, the last thing that will be said before the Court begins considering this case will be:
    "God save the United States and this Honorable Court!"

  • Zeb||

    They should cut that out too.

  • Zeb||

    As far as I can see, the only reason to insist on having a prayer at a public meeting is to push your religion (or religion generally, which is just as bad) on people. If like minded people want to pray before the meeting, they can get together outside and do that. But to insist that it be part of the proceedings if there are participants who don't want it to be is obnoxious and I'd agree violates the establishment clause.

  • DJF||

    But is “pushing” your religion = establishing a religion

    And another part of the same 1st amendment says Congress cannot abridge freedom of speech and isn’t a prayer speech?

  • Zeb||

    A prayer is speech and any individual can pray any time they want as long as it doesn't disrupt the meeting. It just shouldn't be an official part of the meeting. And if the town sanctions a prayer before the meeting (and I bet it is always a Christian, or at least Christian compatible prayer), yes, I think you can call that a government establishment of religion.
    And at this point, it is pretty well established that the establishment clause restricts more than just the government choosing an official religion. Separation of church and state is a marvelous doctrine which benefits the religious and the non-religious alike.

  • DJF||

    But seperation of Church and State is not in the Constitution.

    No extablishing a relgion is.

    There is a big difference.

  • Zeb||

    Actually making a law regarding the establishment of a religion is what it says if you want to get all technically correct.

    Separation of church and state is what has been read into the establishment clause and I'm OK with that.

  • JEP||

    Actually, they apparently mix it up a little bit. They'll ask atheists, Buddhists, etc if they'd like to say a few words as well.

    That's what I heard at the water cooler here in Colorado anyway.

  • Brett L||

    So a sincere belief by someone that a loving God could be invoked by prayer is right out?

  • Zeb||

    Where does that come from? I said people should gather together and pray if they want to. Just don't make everyone at the meeting sit through it.

  • Brett L||

    Why is religious speech different from some other speech you disagree with?

  • Zeb||

    Who says I disagree with anything?

    It's different because it is an official part of the government meeting. I'm not syaing that no one should be allowed to pray. Or even that if there is an open question/comment time people should be forbidden to say a little prayer. Just that the official business of the meeting should not include a prayer.

  • Brett L||

    I don't understand how it is materially different from yielding the microphone to a libertarian advocating the dissolution of the city government. The city officials aren't endorsing the citizen or his beliefs by letting them speak in either case.

  • Zeb||

    But they aren't just letting the prayer people speak. They are setting aside time specifically for a prayer. I think that makes all the difference. If some citizen wanted to stand up and speak during the open speaking time and said a prayer, that would not be a problem. The only problem is that the government is setting aside time specifically for religious activity.

  • GroundTruth||

    This seems like a perfectly good Robertsonian compromise. Don't have an official prayer, but start each meeting with open comments (our town council does just that for the first 30 minutes of each session, 3 minute max per speaker). If the Reverend or Deacon or whatever want to stand up and ask Allah's blessing and wisdom on the council and town, then why not? They sure could use all the help they can get.

  • JEP||

    Replace "prayer" with "speech" or "talk" and religion with "worldview" and you'll see why you're wrong...

  • Zeb||

    Government setting aside time for prayer is establishment of religion. This is an official government function. They should not be promoting religion. Anyone who wants to pray still can. They just can't do it as part of the official government proceedings. That would be establishment. Favoring religiosity over irreligion is the same as picking one religion over another. The government can't do it.

  • JEP||

    I think it's going to come down to what they define as "prayer"

    Can a government meeting start with a moment of silence? Can a government meeting start with an invitation for someone to stand up and say a few words - what if those few words advocate a certain worldview? Furthermore, you seem to be drawing a line between those worldviews you deem spiritual and those that are more naturalistic/materialistic.

    If an atheist is at a casino and says "Come on! Come on!", some would define that as prayer because it's acknowledging an influence outside of themselves. Could you define prayer as verbalizing hope?

    I'm not 100% disagreeing with you, but it's difficult to ban "religious" speech without stepping on freedom of speech. If you ban religious speech, aren't you implicitly advocating non-spirituality?

    We often mention that progressivism is becoming a religion. If you ban religious speech because it's "pushing a religion", you'd have to ban all speech because if the words you say have any coherent meaning they're going to be "pushing" a worldview.

  • Zeb||

    The thing is that there isn't that ambiguity here. The town officials are specifically fighting to keep the prayer time at the meetings. This isn't a case of speech that may or may not be considered religious. It is explicitly and deliberately religious activity sanctioned by the government.

    I'm not one of these people who object to anything that might be considered the least bit religious in the public sphere. I specifically object to a government body setting aside time for religious activity while conducting its official government business.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    There's a complicating factor - the US Supreme Court upheld legislative prayer in 1983 (Marsh v. Chambers). The other complicating factor is that the court (horrors!) ignored the religion-unfriendly test uses in other cases and backed these prayers on the basis of historical precedent. But it didn't articulate a detailed rationale for why legislative prayers are OK and other traditions (like posting copies of the Ten Commandments) are open to challenge.

    The 2nd Circuit distinguished the Marsh case based on "totality of the circumstances" - basically, if Greece had been more inclusive of non-Christian religions their prayer may have been all rights. Eg, if they'd invited non-Christian ministers from out of town, advertised for volunteer preachers from other faiths, basically had a different policy from the one they had, without so much Jesus, maybe it would have been constitutional.

    Really, the SC could use this case to ban legislative prayer altogether and overrule the Marsh decision, or it could allow legislative bodies some discretion in the prayers they use, or they could issue another fractured and confusing ruling.

    Or if the Greece legislature makes its prayers more inclusive to comply with the 2nd Circuit's suggestions, maybe the Supremes will find the case moot.

  • Zeb||

    if Greece had been more inclusive of non-Christian religions their prayer may have been all rights

    Which I think it a bullshit distinction. As I said above, promoting religion over irreligion is the same as promoting a particular religion over others. And if they are going to be all inclusive then they also need to allow prayers from the new religion which I just made up whose prayers consist of screamed obscenities and threats to rape people's grandmothers.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: Zeb,

    As I said above, promoting religion over irreligion is the same as promoting a particular religion over others.


    From a strict constitutional standpoint, promoting a religion is still not a violation of the 1st Amendment. A government official can promote a religion as long as he or she does not compell people, through force or coercion, to subscribe to that religion. The prohibition on Congress and through the Establishment Clause and the 14th Amendment, the rest of the States, is on establishing a particular religion as official through edict, law and/or use of public force.

    Not that I agree with government officials recommending a particular religion over others or disparaging other religions, but to say that they don't have that right is a stretch. Of course they have that right - they're human beings with the inalienable right to say what they believe, just like the rest of us.

  • ||

    "they're human beings with the inalienable right to say what they believe, just like the rest of us."

    On their own dime, sure.

  • Zeb||

    I don't think it is entirely clear that the establishment clause says only what you say it does. It certainly does say that. But the text says "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion", which could be interpreted more broadly that simply prohibiting a state religion.
    Who knows? The Constitution, especially the older parts, were deliberately written in a sparse and somewhat vague way and because of that there will always be arguments over interpretation of various parts. And I suspect that was by design.

  • Tony||

    People acting in an official government capacity cannot promote (or inhibit) religion. That may not be how you prefer to read the first amendment, but it's how US legal precedence does.

    I'm curious how you define compelling people to participate. Is your definition so strict that it requires people being actually arrested for not participating?

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    The difference is that the Supremes, apparently aware that their general religion-hostile rule is ahistorical, was willing to uphold legislative prayers based on long historical practice, even though it didn't fit into the "Lemon balancing test" which they usually use.

  • waffles||

    The original compliant was filed by a Jewish woman who invoked the name of hitler in her reasoning for why christian prayers must not be uttered in her town hall. It really is a free speech issue and any restrictions on this is censorious.

    From the NPR piece all the complaints basically came down to the victims feeling "othered". To combat this they had already reached to secular invocations, some b'hai guy, and a rabbi. I get that some people really hate prayer, but that's why we have protected speech.

  • Eduard van Haalen||

    Has the town taken the hint from the 2nd Circuit and recruited more non-Christians for their prayers? Are they trying to get under the protective umbrella of Marsh v. Chambers?

  • Jaybirdmojo||

    As an atheist, I get confused between "public prayer" and "public speech".

    Could someone explain it to me?

  • Tony||

    Prayer is inherently religious, and government in this country is not allowed to entangle itself with religion.

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