U.S. Supreme Court

Are prayers before town meetings constitutional? SCOTUS hears arguments

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday considered the reach of precedent in a challenge to mostly Christian prayers before town board meetings in Greece, N.Y.

The lawyer for the town of Greece, N.Y., Thomas Hungar of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, argued that the prayers before board meetings by a “chaplain of the month” were constitutional under 1983 Supreme Court decision Marsh v. Chambers. The decision, he said, recognized the nation’s history of legislative prayers and found no establishment-clause violation for prayers they don’t proselytize or advance any particular religion.

According to SCOTUSblog, the fate of Marsh v. Chambers “was very much at issue” during the arguments, but “its reaffirmation could be the only way to get together a majority.” The New York Times, the Religion News Service and the National Law Journal also have stories.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted the difficulty of determining which prayers were proselytizing “unless you parse the prayers,” according to the NLJ account. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked who would determine whether a prayer is nonsectarian.

The federal government argued in support of the town. The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Prior coverage:

ABA Journal: “The establishment clause is still a contentious battle among the justices”

ABAJournal.com: “Chemerinsky: Separation of church and state revisited”

ABAJournal.com: “Uncensored clergy prayers should be allowed before town meetings, 23 states argue in SCOTUS brief”

ABAJournal.com: “SCOTUS takes government prayer case”

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