WASHINGTON — When the Albany City Commission and Dougherty County Commission begin their regular meetings with prayer, are they violating the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment?
Whether local governments violate the Constitution when they open with prayer is a discussion the U.S. Supreme Court will consider during its session later this year, the court announced Monday.
The nation’s highest court on Monday agreed to hear whether a town in New York endorsed religion by allowing members of the public to open meetings with prayer. Two residents sued Greece, N.Y., city government in 2008, saying it was endorsing Christianity, a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of separation of church and state.
Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens said the vast majority of prayer-givers since the practice started in 1999 were Christian clergy. Attendees would often be asked to join in or bow their heads.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York revived the case by ruling against the town after a district court threw out the lawsuit. That ruling conflicts with findings of other federal appeals courts.
Although the town did in theory allow anyone to volunteer, it “neither publicly solicited volunteers to invocation nor informed members of the general public that volunteers would be considered or accepted,” the appeals court said.
The town also failed to make it clear the prayer was intended to signify the solemnity of the proceedings, which the Supreme Court has said is not unconstitutional, rather than “to affiliate the town with any particular creed,” it said.
Lawyers for the town say the Supreme Court has long allowed legislative sessions to begin with a prayer. They also note that the town has never regulated the content of prayers and did not discriminate in selecting prayer-givers.
In Albany, the city and county commissions both start their regular meetings with prayers, either given by commissioners or by clergy. The majority, like the religious makeup of the region, are Christian; however, rabbis from the local synagogue have also been asked to pray, as have local imams.
City Attorney Nathan Davis said that merely opening a meeting with a prayer doesn’t violate the First Amendment.
“I don’t think that we have a constitutional issue with what we do,” Davis said. “There are two parts of the amendment that deal with religion: You can’t prohibit nor can you establish religion, and what we do does neither.”
Typically, the City Commission invites a member of the clergy to come and begin its monthly night meeting with a prayer. City officials say they typically go through the phone book to look for religious leaders to open the meetings.
Tommy Coleman, the attorney for the Dougherty County School Board, said that the rules are a little different for boards of education.
“The issue has never risen to the Supreme Court level before, but the appellate courts have ruled that there is a distinction between legislative bodies like Congress, general assemblies and school boards, generally,” Coleman said. “They allow the prayer in city and county meetings because they’re not educational in nature.”
Coleman, who also represents several small city governments throughout Southwest Georgia, said that he’s never had a complaint or legal challenge arise from someone being offended by starting meetings with prayers.
A total of 18 states and 49 members of the House of Representatives joined briefs asking the court to take the case.
Oral arguments and a decision are expected in the court’s next term, which begins in October and ends in June of 2014.
The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-696.
Reports by Reuters News Service were incorporated into this article.