Supreme Court to consider legislative prayer

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On a sultry July evening, Supervisor John Auberger began the town board meeting in upstate Greece in his usual way: He invited a Christian minister to seek God's blessing.

"Would you bow your heads with me as I pray?" Nathan Miller of Northridge Church asked the audience. Auberger and 14 other officials on the dais listened silently as Miller asked God to guide the meeting while invoking "your son, Jesus."

The town's solemn prayers are now the focus of a U.S. Supreme Court fight that may reshape limits on religious expression at official functions across the country. The case, a highlight of the nine-month term that starts in October, will mark the first time the court has considered legislative prayer since upholding the practice 30 years ago. Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has been receptive to efforts to bring religion into the public square.

Two residents of the Rochester suburb have waged a five-year campaign, arguing that the town is going beyond what the justices allowed in 1983, violating the Constitution by endorsing Christianity.

"Government should be inclusive," said Susan Galloway, 51, who with her friend Linda Stephens, 70, a retired school librarian who is atheist, are challenging the practice.

The town rejects their complaint, arguing it hasn't shut out members of other faiths. Officials say the opening prayer has been delivered by a Jewish man, a Baha'i leader and a Wiccan priestess who invoked Apollo and Athena.

"People from other faiths did volunteer, which is great," said one of Greece's lawyers, Brett Harvey of the Alliance Defending Freedom in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The case will test the impact of the court's changed composition over the past decade and the ideological shift that has left Justice Anthony Kennedy as the most likely deciding vote.

The court has taken up religion cases sparingly since Roberts became chief justice in 2005. In perhaps the biggest ruling, a 5-4 decision in 2010, it revived a federal law designed to protect a Christian cross erected as a war memorial in a national preserve.

Supporters say legislative prayer has been a widespread practice since the country's founding. The vast majority of state legislative bodies open the day with some kind of prayer, as do both houses of Congress.

Critics say that tradition doesn't mean government bodies can favor one religion over others. Ayesha Khan, who represents the challengers, said at least half the state legislatures take steps to ensure the invocations are nonsectarian.

"It's not unusual for legislative bodies to ask guest prayer-givers to pray in an inclusive fashion, and that's exactly what we're asking for here," said Khan, a lawyer with Washington-based Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Before Auberger became supervisor of Greece in 1998, the town began meetings with a moment of silence.

Auberger declined to comment on the prayer policy.

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