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Are prayers before public meetings OK? Supreme Court to decide.

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A federal judge disagreed and dismissed the case. On appeal, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. The Town of Greece, the appeals court ruled, had aligned itself with a single religion in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

“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,” the appeals court said.

It added that “the rare handful of cases, over the course of a decade, in which individuals from other faiths delivered the invocation, cannot overcome the impression, created by the steady drumbeat of often specifically sectarian Christian prayers, that the town’s prayer practice associated the town with the Christian religion.”

This put audience members at town meetings who are nonreligious or non-Christian in an awkward position, the court said.

The town defended its prayer policy, saying it was neutral and nondiscriminatory. The town created a list of anyone who might be willing to present a prayer prior to the town meeting. An official went through the list until someone agreed to deliver a prayer.

“Members of many different religious traditions accepted the opportunity to offer a prayer, including Catholics, Protestants from several denominations, a Wiccan priestess, the chairman of a local Bahai congregation, and a lay Jewish man,” Washington lawyer Thomas Hungar wrote in his brief on behalf of the town, urging the high court to take up the case.

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