“The Constitution is not an instrument for government to restrain the people; it is an instrument for the people to restrain the government – lest it come to dominate our lives and interests.”
– Patrick Henry
Mr. Henry’s remarkable insight – all the more remarkable for being the antithesis of the current administration’s view of government – was wonderfully affirmed this week by the U.S. Supreme Court in their decision in Greece v. Galloway, a case with profound implications for all Americans who cherish public prayer and religious freedom.
The court ruled 5-4 that city officials in the town of Greece, New York, have not violated the Constitution by opening their town meetings with citizen-led prayers – even if the majority of those praying are Christians. In an earlier ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit had ruled that, because most of those volunteering to pray in Greece were Christians, town leaders seemed to be promoting Christianity. To remedy that, the 2nd Circuit actually urged Greece to consider importing non-Christians from outside the community to lead prayers, so that non-Christians won’t “feel like outsiders” at town meetings.
“As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition,” the court’s opinion states, and “part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable Court’ at the opening of this Court’s sessions …That a prayer is given in the name of Jesus, Allah, or Jehovah, or that it makes passing references to religious doctrines, does not remove it from that tradition.”
Although the case centers on one town’s prayer practice, the court’s decision will impact similar cases still in progress in lower courts. Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys will seek to resolve those cases in light of the decision, and are developing a nationwide campaign to inform governmental bodies at all levels that they are free to include prayer in their public meetings.
“In America, we tolerate a diversity of opinions and beliefs,” said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. “We don’t silence people or try to separate what they say from what they believe. Opening public meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution themselves practiced. Speech censors should have no power to silence volunteers who pray for their communities just as the Founders did.”
ADF has been representing the town of Greece since Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed suit against officials there six years ago. Allied attorney Thomas G. Hungar of the Washington, D.C. law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, LLP argued the case before the high court last fall.
“The Supreme Court has reaffirmed that the practice of prayer before legislative bodies is firmly embedded in the history and traditions of this nation,” says ADF Senior Counsel Brett Harvey. “In so doing, they have simply reinforced what has been true about America since its founding: Americans should be free to speak and act consistently with their own beliefs.”
Please join me in giving heartfelt thanks for this crucial decision, for the far-reaching impact it will have in so many other cases around the country, and for the important legal precedent it sets to secure religious freedom for you and your family and for people of faith throughout America.
And take a moment to sign the petition to let your state-elected officials know that they can continue (or bring back) the tradition of opening public meetings in prayer!
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