Baptist Joint Committee brief filed in Supreme Court case urges limit on government involvement in religion

November 6, 2013

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Cherilyn Crowe | Phone: 202-544-4226 x305 | Cell: 202-603-1663  | ccrowe@BJConline.org

WASHINGTON – Official prayers at local government meetings violate the First Amendment and demean religious liberty, according to the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

The Baptist church-state group filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Town of Greece v. Galloway, opposing the town’s practice of opening municipal meetings with prayer. The brief says the practice “infringes the liberty of conscience of not just religious minorities, but also of Christians who believe that worship should be voluntary.”

“By opening a local government meeting with an exercise of religious devotion, a political assembly is transformed into a religious congregation,” said K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee. “It is because of – not in spite of – the importance of prayer and religion that we object to this government assumption of religious functions,” Hollman said.

Click here to listen to a podcast about the case and the BJC’s brief from BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman and Staff Counsel Nan Futrell.

While the town argues its practice is constitutional under the Supreme Court’s Marsh v. Chambers decision (1983), the BJC brief draws a sharp distinction between that precedent and the practice of the town.

The prayer practice upheld in Marsh involved a chaplain employed by the Nebraska Legislature to minister to its members, a practice the Court found comparable to the historical tradition in Congress. The practice in Greece differs fundamentally because “[l]ocal board meetings directly affect citizens in a way that legislative meetings do not,” according to the brief. “A passive visitor in the gallery of the U.S. Congress is simply in a different position than a citizen preparing to speak before a town board.”

The BJC says the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause protects the rights of individuals and faith communities to engage in religious worship as a voluntary expression of individual conscience and prohibits the government from appropriating those rights. The Founders and our Baptist forebears understood “that prayer is an expression of voluntary religious devotion, not the business of the government,” according to the brief.

The Baptist Joint Committee brief was joined by the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The case involves the Greece, N.Y. Town Board’s prayer practice, which was held unconstitutional by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Since 1999, the board has invited local clergy to offer an opening prayer. Two residents sued the town, claiming the practice violates the Establishment Clause by impermissibly aligning the town with Christianity. According to the 2nd Circuit, a substantial majority of the prayers between 1999 and 2010 “contained uniquely Christian language,” amounting to an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway Nov. 6, 2013.

Additional resources:
For BJC Staff Counsel Nan Futrell’s recent column on local government prayer, click here.

Visit SCOTUSblog.com’s Greece v. Galloway resource page for a list of all of the briefs filed in the case

Click here to watch some of the prayers delivered at the Greece Town Board meetings and read more about the prayers on the BJC blog.

Click here to listen to a podcast about the case and the BJC’s brief from BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman and Staff Counsel Nan Futrell.

 

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The Baptist Joint Committee is a 77-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty organization that works to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, bringing a uniquely Baptist witness to the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government. The BJC has filed amicus curiae briefs in more than one hundred cases in the courts, including most of the U.S. Supreme Court’s cases dealing with religious liberty.