Second Circuit rules against town board-led prayer

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Thursday that a New York town council beginning its meeting with prayer is an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. Town board meetings in Greece, NY [official website] are led with prayer, typically Christian-based, although the town maintains that any faith is welcome to lead the council in prayer. Due to this stipulation, the plaintiffs alleging that this practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment [text] received a summary judgment dismissal in district court. The Second Circuit overturned that judgment and ruled that while prayer may not be disallowed at the meetings, the current standards reflected a Christian viewpoint.

We conclude, on the record before us, that the town's prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint. This conclusion is supported by several considerations, including the prayer-giver selection process, the content of the prayers, and the contextual actions (and inactions) of prayer-givers and town officials. We emphasize that, in reaching this conclusion, we do not rely on any single aspect of the town’s prayer practice, but rather on the totality of the circumstances present in this case. The town's process for selecting prayer-givers virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint. Christian clergy delivered each and every one of the prayers for the first nine years of the town's prayer practice, and nearly all of the prayers thereafter. In the town's view, the preponderance of Christian clergy was the result of a random selection process. The randomness of the process, however, was limited by the town's practice of inviting clergy almost exclusively from places of worship located within the town's borders. The town fails to recognize that its residents may hold religious beliefs that are not represented by a place of worship within the town. Such residents may be members of congregations in nearby towns or, indeed, may not be affiliated with any congregation. The town is not a community of religious institutions, but of individual residents, and, at the least, it must serve those residents without favor or disfavor to any creed or belief. In our view, whether a town's prayer-selection process constitutes an establishment of religion depends on the extent to which the selection process results in a perspective that is substantially neutral amongst creeds.
The ruling further suggested that government entities have "an obligation to consider how its prayer practice would be perceived by those who attended Town Board meetings." The court also made clear that they were not ruling against any form of prayer during the meetings, nor even nonsectarian ones, but that any prayer or invocation must be distanced to not be perceived as a government endorsement. The Alliance Defense Fund [advocacy website], which represented Greece in the case, plans to appeal [press release], stating "[t]here is no legal reason why a town cannot engage in this practice today with people from within its own community."

The Second Circuit also ruled [JURIST report] last year that the New York City Department of Education [official website] can enforce a rule prohibiting outside groups from using school facilities for after-school worship services. The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit last July upheld a ruling by a federal district court that the Forsyth County, North Carolina, Board of Commissioners violated the First Amendment by beginning its public meetings with sectarian prayer. This ruling was analyzed [JURIST comment] by JURIST Guest Columnist Katherine Lewis Parker, Legal Director at the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina [advocacy website], who concluded that prayer at government functions that adheres to a particular religious dogma is unacceptable because it has a coercive impact on listeners and violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In April 2011, the US Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit dismissed [JURIST report] a constitutional challenge to the National Day of Prayer (NDP) [official website], overturning an earlier lower court decision [JURIST report] that found the event in violation of the Establishment Clause by representing government-backed encouragement that Americans engage in non-secular activity.

 

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