In Supreme Court brief, BJC urges limit on government involvement in religion

WASHINGTON – Official prayer at local government meetings violates the First Amendment and demeans genuine faith, according to the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty in a brief filed Sept. 23 at the U.S. Supreme Court. The church-state group 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 BJC filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Town of Greece v. Galloway, opposing the practice of opening municipal meetings with prayer. The town’s “practice of beginning a participatory local government meeting with a communal prayer infringes the liberty of conscience of not just religious minorities, but also of Christians who believe that worship should be voluntary,” according to the brief. The Founders and our Baptist forebears understood “that prayer is an expression of voluntary religious devotion, not the business of the government.”

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.”

“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.

The 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. The BJC brief is available to download as a PDF document.

For more information on the case, listen to a podcast from BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman and Staff Counsel Nan Futrell and watch videos of some of the prayers in the case.

From the October 2013 Report from the Capital. Click here for the next article.

Click here to read the entire magazine as a PDF document.