Lone Jewish Voice Favors Public Christian Prayer in Key Supreme Court Case

Nathan Lewin Insists 'No Unanimous View' in Community

Dissenting Voice: Prominent Jewish attorney Nathan Lewin is standing in support of public prayer in a case headed to the Supreme Court.
getty images
Dissenting Voice: Prominent Jewish attorney Nathan Lewin is standing in support of public prayer in a case headed to the Supreme Court.

By Nathan Guttman

Published August 14, 2013, issue of August 16, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

For the first time since 1983, the United States Supreme Court is taking on a case that could overturn its long-held approach to deciding when government-endorsed prayer in the public square violates the Constitution.

The case, which involves an upstate New York town whose legislative meetings opened with prayer invocations that were given almost exclusively by Christian ministers, has many Jewish groups preparing to weigh in with briefs calling for maintenance of a strong separation between religion and state.

But one prominent Jewish attorney with widely recognized expertise on church-state law has already filed a brief meant to dissent from that communal consensus.

“It’s important to show the court there is no unanimous Jewish view against prayer,” said Nathan Lewin, a veteran Washington attorney whose clients have included everyone from the late John Lennon to former attorney general Edwin Meese. “I don’t think we benefit from being seen as those who wish to eradicate religion from the United States.”

For Lewin, the case of Town of Greece v. Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens is yet another opportunity to express the Jewish community’s minority voice, opposing restrictions on public practice of religion.

The case, which will be heard in the fall, takes on the question of opening legislative sessions in Greece, N.Y., that were delivered, in all but a handful of cases, by Christian clergy. The Supreme Court’s decision to accept the case that directly challenges the established legal status quo on public prayer could reflect shifting positions within the highest court since it last faced the issue, three decades ago.

The Town of Greece is located in New York State’s Monroe County, just outside Rochester, and is home to 96,000 residents who are predominantly white and Christian. Since 1999, the town had opened all its legislative meetings with a prayer delivered, almost always, by Christian clergymen.

In 2008, following complaints by two locals regarding the exclusively Christian nature of the prayers, the town invited a Jewish lay leader, a Wiccan priestess and the chairman of a local Baha’i congregation to deliver the opening invocation. But the local complainants remained uncomfortable with the overall Christian content of the prayers. Their decision to take the case to federal court led to a ruling that put an end to the prayers altogether on the grounds that they violated the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

In reviewing the case, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court, ruling that the town’s prayer practices “must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint.” The court cited the town council’s selection process, which led to an almost exclusively Christian list of prayer givers and to the religious content of the prayers themselves. The Supreme Court agreed to take on the appeal in May. Arguments will be heard in the fall, and a decision is expected by next summer.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.