This July marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Marsh v. Chambers. Even with so much passage of time, the Supreme Court is again revisiting the separation of church and state with another decision on government sponsored prayer in Town of Greece v. Galloway.
Marsh v. Chambers began after a state senator from Nebraska, Ernie Chambers, decided to sue over the state legislature’s practice of using a state-supported chaplain to open each session with a prayer. Chambers claimed this practice was in direct violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The case went to the district court who was split on the question. They found the prayer did not violate the First Amendment, but the state sponsored chaplain did. The case then appeared before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals which decided both violated the Constitution. When the case finally appeared before the Supreme Court, it was decided in a 6-3 decision that the both the chaplain and the prayer did not violate the Constitution.
Thirty years later, Town of Greece v. Galloway again revisits opening a state legislative session with a prayer. The argument began after two residents of Greece (Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens) challenged the town’s practice of beginning town meetings with primarily Christian prayers. The first ruling in district court sided with the town, citing the precedence set in Marsh. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals found in favor of Galloway, ruling against the New York town. The Supreme Court decided to take on the case which became even more interesting when the Obama administration submitted a “friend of the court” brief asking the Court to uphold the town’s prayer policy. The brief goes on to say that prayer is allowed under the Constitution as long as it is not proselytizing or discriminatory against other religions.
The arguments were presented before the Supreme Court on November 6th with a final decision by the Court still currently pending. At the foundation of the decision is the possibility of setting more boundaries in the constantly evolving argument over separation of church and state. It is difficult to predict what the Court will ultimately decide, although it might be an uphill battle for Marsh as the town has been quick to make it clear that while the prayers have been predominantly Christian, prayers from all denominations are welcome. Keep an eye out for the ultimate decision and with it, the strength or weakness that can be found under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
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