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!
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • Real exodus? For Mimi Minsky, it's screaming kids and demanding hubby on way down to Miami, not matzo in the desert.
  • The real heroines of Passover prep aren't even Jewish. But the holiday couldn't happen without them.
  • Is Handel’s ‘Messiah’ an anti-Semitic screed?
  • Meet the Master of the Matzo Ball.
  • Pierre Dulaine wants to do in his hometown of Jaffa what he did for kids in Manhattan: teach them to dance.
  • "The first time I met Mick Jagger, I said, 'Those are the tackiest shoes I’ve ever seen.'” Jewish music journalist Lisa Robinson remembers the glory days of rock in her new book, "There Goes Gravity."
  • 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.