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prayers at town meetings May 17, 2012

Posted by Bradley in : governance , trackback

Much attention has been focused recently on the Greek state, and on the question of whether or when it will exit the euro area. The town of Greece in New York State has also been having some problems arising out of the fact that

Since 1999, the Town of Greece, New York, has begun its Town Board meetings with a short prayer.

Plaintiffs challenged the practice arguing a violation of the Establishment Clause. The Second Circuit found that the cases required an examination of the totality of the circumstances. The Court said:

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 town asserts, and there is no evidence to the contrary, that it would have accepted any and all volunteers who asked to give the prayer. But the town neither publicly solicited volunteers to deliver invocations nor informed members of the general public that volunteers would be considered or accepted, let alone welcomed, regardless of their religious beliefs or non-beliefs. Had the town publicly opened its prayer practice to volunteers in this way, its selection process could be defended more readily as random in the relevant sense…. we need not determine whether any single prayer at issue here suffices to give such an indication of establishment, since we find that on the totality of the circumstances presented the town’s prayer practice identified the town with Christianity in violation of the Establishment Clause

I recently noted an English decision that a town council did not have implied authority to have prayers as a formal part of council meetings. Clearly this is a complicated issue whether the state in question has an established religion (as England does – the Queen is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England) or not. The English judge seemed to prefer that prayers be separated from the formal part of council meetings whereas the Second Circuit requires complex balancing:

Ultimately, municipalities must consider their prayer practices in context and as a whole. A municipality must ask itself whether what it does, in context, reasonably can be seen as endorsing a particular faith or creed over others. That is the delicate balancing act required by the Establishment Clause and its jurisprudence.

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