Debate Forum: 04/08

Forum Center: Residents claiming violation of First Amendment seek an answer to their prayers

By Alex Culpepper

Illustration: Joseph Rank
The separation of church and state within political functions was apparently decided in the case Marsh v. Chambers in 1983. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing prayer at the opening of legislative and other public meetings and councils and cited tradition going back to colonial times as part of their rationale. Yet, a clear understanding of separation of church and state really has not been settled, and even judicial agreement remains elusive through the past 30 years. The most recent and visible case to reveal this tangle is one the Supreme Court heard back in November and is poised to rule on this month: Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Greece is a town near Rochester in western New York, and for several years beginning in the 1990s, they have opened the town council meetings with Christian prayers. Back in 2008, residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens made pleas for the town to stop the practice because it made them uncomfortable. Galloway is Jewish and Stephens is an atheist. For a time thereafter, the town council considered the two residents’ concerns and invited non-Christian religious leaders to open meetings with prayer, but eventually all meeting openings resumed with Christian clergy offering prayer. A lawsuit was later filed on behalf of Galloway and Stephens, and they lost a decision to a U.S. District Court. After that, a U.S. Court of Appeals heard the case and sided with Galloway and Stephens, claiming the prayers were a municipal endorsement of Christianity. Thus, the Supreme Court found the case in their courtroom not long after, raising again the limits of showing religious faith in government business.

Supporters of prayer insist this is a freedom of speech issue and hold up the 1983 decision as precedent. They further say the U.S. Congress opens sessions with prayer all the time. According to them, this freedom of expression is part of the foundation of the nation. Supporters also say no one is forced to pray, and they are not forced to accept any religious belief through these opening prayers.

Opponents see these prayer recitals differently. They say it is a violation of the separation of church and state under the First Amendment, and it is especially so at a town meeting where citizens are participating in a government activity. Opponents say people should not have to take part in religious prayer just to do business with a local government. They say calling out a prayer to a particular deity is really not the spirit of inclusiveness one should find at a town meeting.

The fact the case was before the Supreme Court is more evidence the issue is far from resolved. The justices even pondered whether meetings could open with non-sectarian prayers, but there was doubt whether prayer in any form would satisfy all residents and pass the constitutionality sniff test. Anyhow, supporters of the opening prayer don’t see the problem with a prayer offering in which no one is required to take part, but the other side says such expressions have no place in public business and may leave some residents marginalized for not aligning with a larger group’s belief.


Reach DCP forum moderator Alex Culpepper at


Debate Forum Question of the Week:

The Supreme Court will rule on a case challenging the constitutionality of prayers invoked at the beginnings of government meetings and functions. Should religious expression precede government assemblies or is this an endorsement of religion at the expense of the constitutional mandate for separation of church and state?


Debate Left: What happened to the Golden Rule?

By Marianne Stanley

Should religious expression precede government assemblies or is this an endorsement of religion at the expense of the constitutional mandate for separation of church and state?

This can be a bit tricky to navigate and to answer, if for no other reason than this issue provides the perfect storm for an appealing display of sophistry, or making the worse argument appear to be the better through cleverness and emotional appeals. The fact is, a majority of people believe in God and in prayer and the dominant religion in this country at this time is Christianity. But the Founding Fathers were wise enough to pray for guidance as they birthed this new nation and wise enough to call for a strict separation of church and state. Contradictory? Not at all. They were a very small, homogenous group, knowing they needed all the help they could get in setting up the bedrock principles for the United States of America.

The First Amendment is clear, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”  What constitutes an establishment of religion? The strict three-part “Lemon” test (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971) is the litmus test for whether or not religion has overstepped its bounds. It mandates there be no religious purpose to a government practice, the practice in question must neither advance nor inhibit religion and it must not foster “excessive government entanglement with religion.” Mandated prayer before government meetings fails to meet those criteria and does, in fact, “entangle” itself into what should be a secular activity. The Supreme Court justices in the Marsh case carved out a narrow exception for the longstanding practice of paying chaplains to pray at the start of congressional sessions, but the dissenting justices protested even this, saying long tradition can’t negate the fact the practice failed the Lemon test and very clearly violates the Establishment Clause.

The Marsh exception made it through because the justices said it posed no threat to the mandate that forbids government from establishing religion. This is the key point that applies to the New York case about to come before the Supreme Court upon the objections of Susan Galloway, who is Jewish and Linda Stephens, who is an atheist. Today, in our current national climate, factions are girded for battle and small groups are doing their best to overcome majority rule. Religion today has become that threat, with the extreme factions of Christianity accepting large donations of ultra conservative political groups to mount their attack on the secular laws of this country.

There is no godly reason for praying at government meetings or assemblies of any kind. “Religious Creep” is setting in all across this land as those hell-bent on force-feeding their own particular religious beliefs down the throats of more than 300 million people gain traction with the wave of laws that are stripping Americans of their rights. The damage done by this insertion of religion into politics is incalculable. While millions of children go to bed hungry, are neglected, abused or even killed by parents who are unwilling or unable to parent, the religious right callously cites the “sanctity of life” in denying women the sanctity of theirs. Texas, for instance, a state with 13 million people, now has only six clinics that provide abortions to those who want or need them. Religion also has crept into issues like marriage for gays and Bible readings in public schools.

This nation came about because England had entangled government and religion and people fled the tyranny of enforced religious belief. How ironic there are those in the U.S. today who are more than willing to repeat that, forcing their religious beliefs into law. Society today is far more heterogeneous than it was in the days of our inception. Government belongs to everyone; prayer is personal. Maybe it all just comes down to good manners. If we know something we are about to do would offend someone or make them unnecessarily uncomfortable, we shouldn’t do it. Pretty sure that’s in the Bible as the Golden Rule.

We would do well to thus keep public, aloud prayer to places where others share our beliefs – in church, at home around the table or with like-minded friends. Posturing as holy or religious is offensive. Christ condemned the Sadducees and Pharisees for their public show/pretense of religiosity. What of Jesus’ biblical command, “When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret”?

Brian Lee, D.C., a guest chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives, said, “None of the reasons in favor of praying for the state suggest you should do so publicly in the halls of government, outside the home or the context of a worship service. None of them fundamentally overcome Christ’s warning against hypocrisy and vanity. When I pray publicly in church, I pray in common and on behalf of every member of that community. It is not only unchristian, but rude, to offer prayer publicly on behalf of people who don’t claim Christ.”



Marianne Stanley is an attorney, college professor and former journalist who believes many of our nation’s ills could be cured if our children were taught critical thinking skills beginning at the elementary level and continuing through middle and high school. She can be reached at


Debate Right: Oyez! Oyez! Pray for the high court

By Rob Scott

Have you ever heard of a guy named George Washington? That is exactly what I thought. He was the first president of the United States, considered our Founding Father, and has numerous monuments and other items named in his honor. Washington, with other Founding Fathers, was critical – deemed one of the greatest humans to live in world history.

As the first president, Washington had the honor to be the first sworn into office. According to historians and newspapers at the time, not only was Washington a signer of the Constitution, one-fourth of the members of the congress that organized his inauguration had been delegates with him to the Constitutional Convention that produced the Constitution in the first place. Furthermore, this very same congress also penned the First Amendment and its religious clauses. That congress, more than any other, certainly knew what was constitutional. The religious activities that were part of the first inauguration may well be said to have had the approval and imprimatur of the greatest congressional collection of constitutional experts America has ever known.

After being sworn in with his hand on a Bible, Washington gave the first-ever presidential address. Before he began, Washington opened with a heartfelt prayer:

“… it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications … to that Almighty Being Who rules over the universe, Who presides in the councils of nations, and Whose providential aids can supply every human defect – that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes.”

Washington, as well as thousands of others, have set the tone in the United States regarding our observance of a higher power. The U.S. Congress, most state legislatures and city councils across the U.S. start their sessions with a prayer. In the U.S. Congress, both the House of Representatives and Senate mandate each legislative day begin with a prayer.

The U.S. Supreme Court has precedent in deciding whether prayers are constitutionally permissible at the beginning of their respective legislative sessions. In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court in Marsh v. Chambers upheld the practice of starting legislative sessions with an invocation, based on an “unambiguous and unbroken history of legislative prayer” dating back to the first Congress. The prayers in Marsh were offered for 16 years by the same paid Presbyterian minister and frequently contained explicitly Christian themes. The court held such prayers are “simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country,” and are constitutional, unless the selection of prayer-givers “stem[s] from an impermissible motive” or “the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.”

Once again, the high court will again refine whether prayers before a legislative session are permissible under the U.S. Constitution. In this case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court of appeals held the town of Greece, N.Y., violated the Establishment Clause by allowing volunteer private citizens to open town board meetings with a prayer. Though the town had never regulated the content of the prayers, they had permitted any citizen from any religious tradition to volunteer to be a prayer-giver and did not discriminate in selecting prayer-givers. The lower court struck down the town’s prayer practice, applying an “endorsement” test.

Now, the constitutional legal question presented to the U.S. Supreme Court is whether the lower court erred in holding a legislative prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause – regardless of the absence of discrimination in the selection of prayer-givers or forbidden exploitation of the prayer opportunity.

Considering the facts in Town of Greece, the town does not violate the Establishment Clause because it does not have the unconstitutional motive of advancing a particular religion. In Marsh, the Supreme Court held that opening a legislative session with a prayer is constitutional, so long as the government does not select prayer-givers out of an “impermissible motive,” or otherwise “purposely exploit” the prayer time to advance or disparage a particular faith. The town’s prayer practice is constitutional because the town made reasonable, good faith efforts to have an “equal-access policy,” which gave diverse prayer-givers an opportunity to participate. Even though a majority of prayer-givers were Christian, the Marsh analysis does not create a presumption of impermissible motive because the town had a legitimate reason for the disproportionate number: the local demographics and independent choices of religious leaders dictated who would be prayer-givers. Due to the lack of an impermissible motive being present, the content of the prayers cannot be ascribed to the town because it exercised no editorial control over the invocations and affirmed it would not review or censor prayers.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already heard oral arguments on the Town of Greece case. Within the next few weeks, the high court will be releasing their decision on the case. I predict the court will most likely continue with precedent under the Marsh decision and determine the town of Greece did not violate the Establishment Clause for their prayers. Washington will continue to be right under God.

 Rob Scott is a practicing attorney at Oldham & Deitering, LLC. Scott is the Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party and the founder of the Dayton Tea Party. He can be contacted at or

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