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Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens took the board to federal court and won by contending that its prayers – often spiced with references to Jesus, Christ and the Holy Spirit – aligned the town with one religion.Once the legal battle was joined, town officials canvassed widely for volunteer prayer-givers and added a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and a member of the Baha'i faith to the mix.While the court had upheld the practice of legislative prayer in the past, most recently in a 1983 case involving the Nebraska Legislature, the case of Town of Greece v.Galloway therefore presented the justices with a new twist: mostly Christian clergy delivering frequently sectarian prayers before an audience that often included average citizens with business to conduct.The alternatives, the conservative justices said, would be worse: having government officials and courts "act as supervisors and censors of religious speech," or declaring all such prayers unconstitutional."As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of 'God save the United States and this honorable court' at the opening of this court's sessions," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.Justice Elena Kagan wrote the principal dissent for the court's liberal bloc, arguing that the intimate setting of local government meetings, the participation of average citizens and the dominance of Christian prayer-givers put the policy out of bounds."When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another," Kagan said.National data on prayer practices at the city, town and village levels do not exist.The Supreme Court cracked down on prayer in schools in the 1960s, ruling against Bible readings, the Lord's Prayer or an official state prayer. Kurtzman, a 1971 case involving religion in legislation, the high court devised what became known as the "Lemon test." Government action, it said, should have a secular purpose, cannot advance or inhibit religion and must avoid too much government entanglement with religion.
The 5-4 ruling, supported by the court's conservative justices and opposed by its liberals, was based in large part on the history of legislative prayer dating back to the Framers of the Constitution.
Then came Marsh, in which the court gave a green light to legislative prayer that does not advance or disparage any faith.
Kennedy said Monday's decision follows in that spirit."The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce non-believers," he said.
Defending a practice used by the town of Greece, N.
Y., the majority ruled that opening local government meetings with sectarian prayers doesn't violate the Establishment Clause as long as no religion is advanced or disparaged, and residents aren't coerced.