The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) has filed a friend of the court
brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to declare town council prayers
unconstitutional. At issue is a long-standing practice by Greece, N.Y. to entertain
Christian prayers to a Christian god by Christian ministers at the start of all
town council meetings. In nearly all cases, a supernatural force is asked to
somehow makes good things happen for Greece and its inhabitants, though now and
then Jesus is also asked to bring world peace, end hunger and boost the
intelligence of public officials, that is, guide them to better decisions.
The case is being brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU), but of course amicus briefs are always welcome. The plaintiffs are two female citizens of the town, a freethinker and a Jew, who claim being offended and excluded by the prayer ritual. The women won a unanimous verdict in an earlier ruling on the issues in the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. That court ruled in 2012 that the city’s practice was indeed a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
As with most of the legal battles involving prayer cases and other situations that secularists consider constitutional violations by Christian public officials, Greece is backed by the Religious Right legal group called the Alliance Defending Freedom. With funds from the Alliance organization, the town appealed the ruling by the 2nd Circuit to the Supreme Court.
In its amicus brief, FFRF noted that government prayer is the second most common complaint it receives, to the point that it has communicated with hundreds of legislative entities in nearly every state.
The following is from the bulletin that FFRF sent to its 20,000 members describing the amicus brief filed in case. (See “Overturn Marsh,” 9/25/ 2013.)
FFRF asks the court to overturn its 1983 decision, Marsh v. Chambers, which blessed nonsectarian government prayer. FFRF noted that the Marsh decision relied on flawed historical analysis, excusing Nebraska statehouse prayers as “traditional” because the practice was longstanding, and calling prayers “a tolerable acknowledgment” of widely held beliefs.
FFRF called Marsh an “outlier” which does not comport with other court decisions interpreting the meaning of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. “Marsh relied on colonial prayers that were given years before the Constitution and First Amendment were adopted but minimized the fact that the framers did not pray during the Constitutional Convention when composing our godless Constitution,” FFRF’s brief said.
FFRF urged the court to place legal principles over history. Some of the Supreme Court’s most-ill-advised decisions, such as the Dred Scott ruling, have used “tradition” to justify violations of citizens’ constitutional rights: “Sometimes, a long history is simply a longstanding injustice – as this Court’s treatment of anti-miscegenation and discrimination against gay citizens demonstrates.”
“Marsh wrongly subjugates fundamental rights to majority rule. Majority will does not trump rights. This country’s rapidly shifting religious demographics should force this Court to revisit Marsh’s ‘tolerable acknowledgment’ argument,” FFRF told the court.
The brief cites statistics showing that a fifth of today’s population is not religious, making government prayer highly exclusionary.
The brief was submitted on behalf of FFRF by Richard L. Bolton, counsel of record and by FFRF Staff Attorneys Andrew L. Seidel, Patrick C. Elliott, Rebecca S. Markert and Elizabeth Cavell.