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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 Town of Greece is arguing that the ban on prayers should be limited to those that proselytize or defame other faiths. If the Supreme Court agrees, sectarian public prayer would be permitted.

Jewish organizations were heartened that during oral arguments, the lawyer for Galloway and Stephens, Douglas Laycock, moved the court to consider a different issue: Whether a publicly attended town board meeting should be considered as equivalent to a legislature.

In legislature cases, the argument goes, the affected parties — the lawmakers — willingly entered a system with existing rules and traditions that could include prayer. In a town board meeting, the affected parties are ordinary citizens going about their daily business.

“[The Marsh case] is adults elected by their constituents to go into a legislature where there’s a history of prayers being offered at every session,” said Michael Lieberman, the ADL’s Washington counsel. “This is different. The town council is the place where ordinary citizens must go to get a zoning variance or complain about cable service.”

For Galloway, it was a thrill to see Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan challenge the Town of Greece’s lawyer, Thomas Hungar, by imagining a hypothetical in which the court proceedings had been preceded by the same benediction recited at Greece’s board meetings.

“Suppose that as we began this session of the Court, the chief justice had called a minister up to the front of the courtroom, facing the lawyers, maybe the parties, maybe the spectators,” Kagan said. “And the minister had asked everyone to stand and to bow their heads in prayer and the minister said the following: He said, we acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We draw strength from His resurrection. Blessed are you who has raised up the Lord Jesus. You who will raise us in our turn and put us by His side. The members of the Court who had stood responded amen, made the sign of the cross, and the chief justice then called your case. Would that be permissible?”

“I don’t think so, your honor,” said Hungar, who then attempted to distinguish between legislative prayer and prayer in a courtroom.

Galloway believes that Kagan seized on that account of a Town of Greece prayer opening because she also is Jewish and has faced similar incidents in the course of her career.

“We’ve all had experiences that have been difficult,” Galloway said. “These are things common to Jewish people.”

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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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