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Allow Legislative Prayer? Obama and Lawmakers Weigh In

By Aditi Mukherji, JD on August 13, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The Obama administration is getting "entangled" in the legislative prayer case.

In a turn for the nearly apocalyptic, the Obama administration and the GOP have found some common ground. Both sides have filed amicus briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court supporting the right of local town boards to begin their meetings with a prayer.

Here's the low-down on what they're arguing and how it particularly affects the Eighth Circuit:

Galloway v. Town of Greece

Last year, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the town of Greece, New York, crossed the line and violated the First Amendment's ban on an "establishment of religion." For years, the town supervisor had invited a local minister to deliver an opening prayer at the council's monthly meeting.

Two residents, one Jewish and one an atheist, filed the lawsuit because only Christians were invited to lead the prayers.

Lawyers for the Obama administration and two groups of lawmakers from the House and Senate (nearly all Republicans) separately handed in amicus briefs last week that Greece's town councils should be allowed to open their meetings with a prayer.

Clearer Establishment Clause

The case revolves around a hotly contested question: Should the U.S. Supreme Court relax the constitutional limits on religious invocations at government meetings?

"There is now no clear governing rule or rationale" for determining the constitutionality of legislative prayer, the House Members said in their brief.

But the implications go well beyond legislative prayer. They argued in their brief that the Establishment Clause should have a single workable test that "applies regardless of whether the challenged government action is legislative prayer, other religious speech, or a passive display."

Marsh v. Chambers

The Supreme Court's decision will certainly affect its previous decision that directly involved the Eighth Circuit.

In Marsh v. Chambers in 1983, the Supreme Court held it was constitutional for a chaplain to open Nebraska's legislative sessions with prayer and for that chaplain to be state-supported, overturning the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling that found both practices to violate the Constitution.

With Greece gaining steam from amicus briefs, the case may very well supplant the Court's Marsh decision and lead to sweeping changes in the law on religion that go well beyond legislative prayer.

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