A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday that upholds the right of a town in Western New York to begin its public meetings with prayers that are usually Christian is a blow to Jewish or other non-Christian interests, but “could have been far worse,” said a legal expert who works for the American Jewish Committee.
“Of course we’re disappointed” with the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision that allows Greece, a suburb of Rochester, to open its board meetings with, in effect, exclusively Christian prayers, said Marc Stern, general counsel for the American Jewish Committee.
“What may be our desired result” — a ruling that such Christian-only public prayers are a violation of Constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion, and violate the prohibition on the establishment of a state religion — was not on the table,” Stern told The Jewish Week.
But the majority decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, “very narrowly” favors the town, and makes clear that non-Christians can not be “denigrated,” or excluded” from taking part in the “chaplain of the month” program, Stern said.
According to the court’s decision, the town’s behavior does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment.
The AJCommittee, along with several prominent Jewish organizations — including the Reform movement, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the Anti-Defamation League — had filed friend-of-the-court briefs on behalf of Susan Galloway, a Jewish resident of Greece who seven years ago first challenged the town’s practice of turning to Christian clergy who used exclusively Christian references in their opening prayers.
Abraham Foxman, ADL national director, said he was “profoundly disappointed” by the court’s decision. He said the ruling “opens the door wide to overtly sectarian prayers before public meetings of government bodies. The court’s focus on whether the prayers are coercive misses the mark and reflects a deep insensitivity to religious minorities or those who are non-religious.”
Americans United for Separation of Church and State assisted the suit brought by Galloway and Linda Stephens, a fellow Greece resident.
“Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond that authority of government to alter or define,” Kennedy wrote in his decision.
Justice Elana Kagan wrote in dissent that the town’s practice of using almost exclusively Christian clergy could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share of her government.”
Kagan, and the other Jewish Supreme Court justices — Ruth Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer — dissented from the majority decision in Town of Greece V. Galloway.
David Cortman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented Greece, said the Supreme Court “affirmed that Americans are free to pray. In America, we tolerate a diversity of opinions and beliefs; we don’t silence people to try to separate what they say from what they believe.”
The “thoughtless way” that Greece has administered its opening prayers “gave the impression that the town favored Christianity,” Stern said.
The language of the majority decision “sends a warning signal to those who would use legislative prayer to be exclusively Christian,” he said.