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Protecting Liberty

By Brett Harvey posted on:
October 17, 2017

Religious liberty is on the line for all Americans in a case the Supreme Court will hear this fall.  In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the high Court has agreed to review a decision that struck down the Town’s practice allowing citizens to voluntarily open public meetings with prayer.  The Town, represented by Alliance Defending Freedom, is defending its liberty to accommodate the faith of its citizens by giving them the opportunity to open town meetings with prayer.  The Town is also defending the liberty of citizens to decide for themselves how to pray.  Both align with a historical understanding of liberties the First Amendment protects.

America’s Founders designed the government to protect the individual liberty of its citizens.  After the War of Independence, the 13 states fiercely debated how the new nation should best be governed.  That debate produced the Constitution, which outlined the structure of a limited government but remained silent on the people’s individual liberties.  Having rallied to Patrick Henry’s cry of “give me liberty, or give me death” and having seen their family and countrymen pay the ultimate price in the war, the people were wary of giving too much power to a new central government.  In most states the people ratified the Constitution with an understanding that the first order of business for the newly formed Congress was to protect individual liberties by setting out a Bill of Rights.

Religious liberty is the first right protected in the Bill of Rights.   This protection guarantees the right of the individual to freely exercise his or her faith and permits the government to acknowledge and accommodate the individual’s faith, so long as it does not establish a religion.  And the Founders made clear what they meant by “establishment.”

Scholars often turn to the writings of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison because they wrote extensively on the intersection of government and religion.   Their writings make clear that the essence of an establishment of religion is a form of legal coercion that negates religious liberty.  For example, imposing a state tax to support the Baptist church takes away the liberty of a Jewish individual to refuse support for the Baptists.  A law that requires active participation in a religious exercise, such as a Catholic Mass, takes away the religious liberty of the Mormon who believes that alcohol should never be consumed.  Understanding the Establishment Clause by considering how it impacts individual liberty makes sense.

But contrast that common sense approach with a demand that prayers be banned or censored for fear that another may not want to hear it.  Simply hearing another person pray or seeing a religious symbol on public property is not an “establishment” as understood by the Founders because it does not impact the rights, privileges, or individual liberty of the observer.  Nothing is “established” when a person is free to accept, reject, or ignore without consequence something they see or hear in public.  But refusing to allow a prayer or censoring the way a person prays directly limits the religious liberty of the prayer giver.

In Town of Greece, two residents brought suit because they did not like the way people prayed.  They took offense because the volunteers who prayed would often include a reference to Jesus.  The lower court noted that the Town allowed people of all faiths or no faith to open the meetings in the way that is consistent with their own unique perspective.  Nevertheless, the court concluded that the Town had an obligation to limit or censor the prayers.  The Town appealed to the Supreme Court to protect its right to give local citizens the opportunity to petition for Divine guidance on the public proceedings in a way that accommodates their faith and protects their liberty to choose how to pray.

In the coming months the Supreme Court will have the opportunity to reconsider how the First Amendment protects religious liberty.  Hopefully the Court will reaffirm the value of individual liberty that this nation’s Founders intended to protect.

If you support public prayer and think this valuable tradition should continue, sign the Statement of Support for prayer.

To learn more about the case and what’s at stake, visit

Brett Harvey

Brett Harvey

Senior Counsel, Vice President of Allied Legal Affairs

Brett Harvey, Esq., serves as senior counsel and vice president of the Grants and Funding Team with Alliance Defending Freedom.

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