In many parts of the country, it's not at all unusual for locals to attend a meeting of their city council or county commission, and see local officials begin the meeting with an official prayer. What if the invocation doesn't reflect your religious beliefs? That's a shame, but you're out of luck -- you can sit silently or wait in the hall.
Is this permissible in a country that honors the separation of church and state? We'll apparently get an answer to that question fairly soon.
The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether a town board in upstate New York violated the First Amendment by starting its sessions with a prayer.
The case comes from Greece, a town near Rochester. For more than a decade starting in 1999, the town board began its public meetings with a prayer from a "chaplain of the month." Town officials said that members of all faiths and atheists were welcome to give the opening prayer.
In practice, the federal appeals court in New York said, almost all of the chaplains were Christian.
Indeed, the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously against the official prayers, noting, among other things, that most of the invocations "contained uniquely Christian language," and there's nothing in the local policy that requires that the prayers be inclusive or non-sectarian. "The town's prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint," the appeals court concluded.
Whether a Supreme Court majority will agree remains to be seen. The most recent case on the matter was in 1983, in a case called Marsh v. Chambers, in which the high court upheld daily invocations in the Nebraska legislature.
The case was brought by my friends at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which brought the litigation on behalf of two community residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens. They objected to the Greece Town Board's practice of inviting clergy to open its meetings with sectarian prayers.
The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United (and full disclosure, a long-time friend of mine), said, "A town council meeting isn't a church service, and it shouldn't seem like one. 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."
It's a case worth watching.