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May 11, 2014

Public prayer largely met with a shrug

Tonawanda News — It’s a question that’s dogged governmental leaders since the framers wrote the Constitution: What role — if any — should religion play in public life?

In a landmark decision last week, the U.S. Supreme Court upended decades of precedent, allowing prayers that specifically invoke Christianity and Jesus Christ to be said aloud before public meetings. And while the decision sparked heated debate nationally, local leaders whose legislative bodies almost universally pray before meetings said the decision isn’t likely to change much about how they do the public’s business.

In a region where those who believe in a god overwhelmingly observe some form of Christianity, it isn’t a particularly controversial subject. That is, if you’re in the majority. 

So what’s appropriate and how far is too far in acknowledging the role of religion in society? On this question, there is still considerable debate.

HIGH COURT CHALLENGE

In a close, 5-4 decision that included pointed questions from both sides, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case Town of Greece v. Galloway, found religious prayers — including ones that invoke a specific religious belief — are permissible before public meetings.

The case originated in a town outside Rochester, where two residents objected to ministers’ frequent recitation of Christian prayers at government meetings, some of which mentioned Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. 

The two Greece residents, Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, said the practice made them feel uncomfortable and argued that the prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment, which prohibits the government from establishing an official state religion. 

But Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the five-justice controlling opinion, rejected their claim and said that prayers — even those that mention Jesus or another specific religious figure — are allowable as long as there is no attempt to intimidate, coerce or convert nonbelievers into participating in the religious act.

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