Living on a Prayer

Opinion: Town of Greece v. Galloway, No. 12-696

The Supreme Court blurs line between church and state with Town of Greece v. Galloway.



The separation between church and state is one of the most fundamental aspects in American society. Like boys and girls at a middle school dance, church and state have been on opposite sides of the gymnasium for years now. But on Monday, the Supreme Court may have started breaking out the slow jams to start the awkward slow dance.


With a 5-4 ruling on the case Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court upheld the practice of Christian prayers at the start of city hall meetings, declaring the practice Constitutional based on the precedence of them being long standing national traditions. Backed by the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, they declared the content of the prayers aren’t significant as long as they don’t debase other religions or gain converts through the practice.


While stopping short of abandoning the separation of religion in government, Monday’s decision definitely blurred the lines between the two. Writing the opinion for the Court was Justice Anthony Kennedy who stated that having clergy remove references to Jesus and other religious figures out of public records would turn officials into censors. Justice Kennedy went on by stating that the prayers should be looked at as ceremonial to keeping with the nation’s traditions.


Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent to the opinion, siding with the four liberal justices on the Court, stating “I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality – the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”


The case was brought to the Supreme Court over a dispute regarding the small town of Greece, New York and their practice of opening city hall meetings with a Christian prayer for the span of eleven years. Two of the town’s residence filed suit claiming that the practice was unconstitutional on the grounds that it was promoting Christianity at a government facility.


In his opinion, Justice Kennedy also referenced a 1983 decision as precedence, in which the Supreme Court sided with the Nebraska Legislature who led an opening prayer at the beginning of legislative sessions. During that case the Court had concluded that prayer was part of the nation’s fabric and not in violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.


Legal experts concluded that the decision has more to do with the Court upholding the practice of legislative prayer than bringing down the wall that separates church and state. While this decision is far from breaking that wall, it definitely has many freedom of religion advocates jarred, having viewed yesterday’s decision as the Court disregarding the interest of religious minorities and nonbelievers. Only time can tell if this decision becomes a part of something much bigger.


Justices that Supported the Decision: Kennedy, Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas

Justices that Dissented: Sotomayor, Ginsberg, Kagan, and Breyer


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