JURIST Guest Columnist Alex Luchenitser, Associate Legal Director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says that despite the US constitutional tradition of separation between church and state, US courts lag far behind the UK after a recent decision banning prayers at town-council meetings…
Last Friday, in National Secular Society v. Bideford Town Council, the UK High Court of Justice ruled that British town councils must not open their meetings with prayer. The court’s decision was limited in scope, for the court concluded only that the councils lack statutory authority to include prayer in their meetings. The court rejected arguments that such prayers violate objectors’ freedoms of conscience and religion. Nevertheless, the decision renders the law in the UK more restrictive of prayer at meetings of government bodies than is the law in the US, even though unlike the US, the UK has an established church and lacks a constitutional tradition of strict separation between church and state.
The US Supreme Court, in the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers, held that it is constitutional for state legislatures to open their meetings with prayer. Federal appellate courts have uniformly extended that ruling to meetings of town councils and county commissions, even though such local meetings — especially in the case of small communities — often feature more coercive environments than do meetings of state legislatures.
The only debate within US courts in this area has been about whether the prayers must be “non-sectarian” — within the Judeo-Christian tradition — to be permissible. Most of the federal appellate courts that have considered the issue have concluded that sectarian prayers are not allowed. Last month, the Supreme Court refused to disturb a ruling to that effect by the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Joyner v. Forsyth County, which was commented on in JURIST by Americans United Legal Director Ayesha Khan and The Rutherford Institute President John Whitehead.
While the requirement that prayers be “non-sectarian” within Christianity and Judaism may prevent most Christians and Jews from feeling excluded and unrepresented when the prayers are given at the meetings of their government bodies, this restriction does nothing to protect the rights of adherents to polytheistic or nontheistic faiths or of atheists or agnostics. Determining whether prayers are “non-sectarian” also sometimes forces US courts to make delicate and difficult inquiries into religious doctrine.
Perhaps one day — by no means soon, but one day — the US Supreme Court will rule that the best way to both preserve the religious freedom of individuals and prevent governmental involvement in religious matters is to permit no prayers at all at the meetings of government bodies. But if America’s high court ever does arrive at that judgment, it will lag far behind its brethren across the ocean.
Alex Luchenitser is Associate Legal Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. Luchenitser has litigated church-state cases throughout the country for Americans United since January 2001. His work has included lawsuits challenging public-school graduations in churches, student-voted prayer at public-school graduations, intelligent-design creationism in public-school science classes, public funding of proselytizing programs for prisoners, public funding of religious discrimination and coercion by sectarian children’s homes, and government-sponsored displays of the Ten Commandments.
Suggested citation: Alex Luchenitser, UK Ruling Provides Greater Church-State Separation Than in US, JURIST – Hotline, Feb. 20, 2012, http://jurist.org/hotline/2012/02/alex-luchenitser-uk-prayer.php.
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