Washington — 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.