Greece, a town of 96,000 near Rochester, N.Y., has opened its monthly town board meetings since 1999 with prayers delivered by local clergy and volunteers. During the first nine years, every public prayer was led by a Christian.
Two residents — one a Jew, the other an atheist — sued in 2008. The two women, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, noted that town residents attending the board meetings for awards ceremonies, zoning actions or other reasons must sit through the prayers.
Much debate will revolve around a 1983 Nebraska case in which the Supreme Court decided that opening legislative sessions with prayers didn’t violate the First Amendment. Under the ruling, called Marsh v. Chambers, legislative prayer is blocked only if the government acts with “impermissible motive” in selecting prayer-givers or if it uses the prayers to advance a particular religion or denigrate another.
The Supreme Court now might second-guess the 1983 decision, as some advocacy groups urge, such as the American Civil Liberties Union. More likely, the justices might retain at least the basics of the Marsh standard, determine whether the town of Greece met it and use the new decision to clarify how future public prayer challenges will be evaluated.
The Obama administration, for one, suggests an essentially tolerant standard that would, in the words of Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., keep courts out of “the business of parsing the theological content or meaning of particular prayers.”