The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case that could place limitations on prayer at government meetings in cities, towns, and municipalities across the nation. The case involves the tradition in the predominantly Christian community of Greece, New York, of having pastors and lay people from local churches open the monthly government meetings with prayer. In 2007, two local women who didn’t like the fact that the prayers were virtually all offered by Christians complained, prompting community officials to invite a Wiccan priest, a Baha’i representative, and a Jewish man to offer the prayers. When it was found that eight of the next 12 meetings featured Christian prayers, the atheist group Americans United for Separation of Church and State gallantly stepped in and sued the town on behalf of the women.

In 2008, a lower court ruled in favor of the community, finding that the town fathers had not intentionally excluded non-Christian prayers. But Americans United appealed, and in 2012, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit reversed the lower court decision, ruling that the town officials had somehow violated the First Amendment’s supposed separation of church and state clause by unfairly favoring Christian prayers. That decision set up an appointment with the Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in full.

“A town council meeting isn’t a church service, and it shouldn’t seem like one,” intoned Barry Lynn, a spokesman for Americans United. “Government can’t serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others. That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion.”

But Joel Oster of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which is representing the town of Greece in the case, said that the appeals court ruling forces the city to become a prayer monitor in its meetings, and turns the reverent tradition of prayer into a government-supervised affirmative action program. “Since this nation’s founding, public meetings have been opened with prayers offered according to the conscience of the speaker,” noted Oster. “There is no legal reason why a town cannot engage in this practice today with people from within its own community. The district court rightly affirmed the constitutionality of the town’s policy.” He added that secular groups with a grudge against Christianity “cannot be allowed to force local governments to engage in strange hoops and hurdles that effectively eliminate prayers by making them too difficult to take place.”

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