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Legal Fight against Public Prayer Dates Back to Childhood Carols

A lifelong exposure to public Christian prayer drove a Jewish woman to sue a small New York town for violating freedom of religion. She won the case, but the Supreme Court might overrule the decision.
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Susan Galloway (right), a Jew, and atheist Linda Stephens are behind the fight in the Supreme Court over public prayer.

Susan Galloway (right), a Jew, and atheist Linda Stephens are behind the fight in the Supreme Court over public prayer.
Photo Credit: Catholic.org

The need for a firm barrier between church and state is as clear now for Susan Galloway as it was in grade school, when she was expected to sing carols at the Christmas show.

Galloway grew up in McHenry, Ill., a town northwest of Chicago with few other Jews, and the carols sung in school made ample mention of Jesus. Galloway refused to take part.

“It was against everything I was taught,” Galloway told JTA.

As an adult living in the Rochester, N.Y., suburb of Greece, Galloway encountered a similar problem. Each town board meeting would open with a Christian prayer that mentioned Jesus. She and a friend, Linda Stephens, both became uncomfortable.

Now the effort by Galloway and Stephens to stop it has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Oral arguments were held last week in a case that could substantially redefine the scope of acceptable prayers in public venues across the country.

“They’re asking us to bow our heads, they’re asking us to join them in the Lord’s Prayer, they’re asking us to stand — all of this is in the name of Jesus Christ,” Galloway, 51, said in an interview last week. “This one guy went on about the resurrection. We have preachers who stand there with their hands in the air.”

Galloway’s day in court is the culmination of six years of legal battles that began after she started attending board meetings regularly in a bid to save the local public access television channel. Initially she and Stephens appealed to the board supervisor, but they were relegated to subordinates who told them to get over it.

“They basically told us we could leave or put up with it,” Galloway said. “I was offended.”

They sought backing from outside groups, but many turned them away. Especially hurtful for Galloway was the deaf ear from the Rochester Board of Rabbis.

“I presented the issue, and I hoped other rabbis would see it that way,” said Rabbi Simeon Kolko, a childhood friend of Galloway who agreed to make the case on her behalf. “There was not a willingness.”

Rabbi Larry Kotok, the board president, did not respond to a request for comment.

At first, Galloway said, she and Stephens felt ostracized; then it got worse. Threatening letters came in, some signed “666,” the Christian signifier of the devil. Stephens’ home was vandalized. Galloway believes hers was spared because she lives on a busy street.

But Galloway refused to be cowed — a product, she said, of an upbringing that stressed believing in the best of others. “I wanted to believe if you have a conversation with people and you explain to them a point of view and they understand something, there’s a way to work the issue out,” she said. “But they did not want to talk or negotiate or anything.”

With the assistance of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Galloway and Stephens pressed the issue. At first the town seemed responsive, opening up the sessions to prayers of other faiths four times in 2008. But the sides couldn’t settle and the matter went to the courts.

The fact that the Supreme Court is taking the case is not necessarily good news for Galloway. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled on her behalf, but when the Supreme Court considers appeals from lower courts it mostly intends to reverse the decision.

Still, Galloway has accrued the support — from Jewish and non-Jewish groups — she felt was missing in the case’s early days. An array of major organizations — including the Reform movement, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee — have filed friend-of-the-court briefs on her behalf.

“It sends a message to people who are coming that maybe they don’t belong, maybe they will be treated differently,” said Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director for the NCJW. “It creates a climate that makes folks feel like they’re not necessarily part of the political process.”

The concern going into the oral hearing was that the court would substantially expand the definition of permitted prayer in a 1983 case, Marsh v. Chambers. That decision, based on a case related to prayers in the Nebraska Legislature, has been widely interpreted as allowing nonsectarian prayer in legislative bodies.

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5 Responses to “Legal Fight against Public Prayer Dates Back to Childhood Carols”

  1. These are indeed experiences to Jewish people. And I have personally been set upon by every way as her Christian neighbors has her, and like her I never got help either from other Jews afraid to make waves. Every prayer has one purpose–to be a religious test usually perpetrated by Christians who are evangelizing by nature and sorting out cult members from ‘outsiders.’ There is no Christian basis for public prayer. It is the same ‘local’ ploy used by Christians during the Middle Ages to hunt out non-Christians for destruction. Here it is to destroy Jews and others civilly and to marginalize them in numerous ways. Christians do this in small towns because they think local populations will not resist out of the reach of more American people. Good luck Ms. Galloway. Tear them a new one.

  2. Earl W. Littlefield Jr says:

    Let's send these females to Mecca to work on public prayer problems……

  3. Bruce Killey says:

    Well now this is interesting. Does the Jewish support for 'freedom from religion" extend to the nation of Israel, or only in nations where they are a minority? A sincere question.

  4. Chaiya Eitan says:

    When I was in school and that name was mentioned I simply didn't say it. This is part of the tradition of the U.S. By having Jews associated with this movement to ban the singing of Christmas carols in public places could create a backlash against Jews.

  5. Bill Dunn says:

    Where they don't live and aren't citizens? Your suggestion makes little sense. And "these females?" Have some latent misogyny, perhaps?

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