Supreme Court Grapples With Prayer Case — and All Hell Breaks Loose on Bench

News Analysis

Pray in Hall: Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, speaks as Supreme Court hears case about town hall prayer meeting.
getty images
Pray in Hall: Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, speaks as Supreme Court hears case about town hall prayer meeting.

By Reuters

Published November 07, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

When the U.S. Supreme Court talks about religion, all hell breaks loose.

A dispute over an upstate New York town’s prayer before council meetings produced an unusually testy oral-argument session on Wednesday that recalled the decades of difficulty Supreme Court justices have had drawing the line between church and state.

Court decisions involving freedom of religion tend to be closely decided with many separate opinions rather than clear-cut majority statements. The case of Town of Greece v. Galloway appears to be headed that way.

In the case brought by two Greece residents who objected to the overwhelmingly Christian prayers at meetings, the justices appeared likely to allow legislative prayer to continue but not ready to offer new guidance for when government might have gone too far in favoring, for example, Christianity over other faiths. The more liberal of the nine justices appeared sympathetic to the challenge while the conservatives who control the court’s majority seemed ready to back the town - but not with a single obvious rationale.

At one point during the hourlong session, Justice Stephen Breyer referred to the challenge of setting constitutional rules so people of different religions live “harmoniously together.” Not soon after, Justice Elena Kagan asserted that, “Every time the court gets involved in things like this, it seems to make the problem worse rather than better.”

Overall, the justices’ remarks were more pessimistic than positive regarding a possible consensus. They voiced frustration with the lawyers who appeared before them and with each other as well.

When Breyer asked the town’s lawyer if officials could take more steps to invite non-Christians and even people who are not religious to offer the equivalent of a prayer, Justice Antonin Scalia mockingly asked what sort of invocation “somebody who is not religious” could offer. As lawyer Thomas Hungar, representing the town of Greece, began to suggest a chant “of guidance and wisdom,” Breyer interjected with some annoyance toward Scalia, “Perhaps he’s asking me that question and I can answer it later.”

ENDURING DILEMMAS

Such have been the tensions over one of America’s most enduring dilemmas. The U.S. Constitution guarantees the free exercise of religion while requiring the separation of church and state. Neither dictate is absolute and the court has struggled with religious protections, often leaving lower courts with confusing standards, particularly on the mandate at issue on Wednesday - that government “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”


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!
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • "We must answer truthfully: Has a drop of all this bloodshed really helped bring us to a better place?”
  • "There are two roads. We have repeatedly taken the one more traveled, and that has made all the difference." Dahlia Scheindlin looks at the roots of Israel's conflict with Gaza.
  • Shalom, Cooperstown! Cooperstown Jewish mayor Jeff Katz and Jeff Idelson, director of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, work together to oversee induction weekend.
  • A boost for morale, if not morals.
  • Mixed marriages in Israel are tough in times of peace. So, how do you maintain a family bubble in the midst of war? http://jd.fo/f4VeG
  • Despite the escalating violence in Israel, more and more Jews are leaving their homes in Alaska to make aliyah: http://jd.fo/g4SIa
  • The Workmen's Circle is hosting New York’s first Jewish street fair on Sunday. Bring on the nouveau deli!
  • 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.