Supreme Court argument preview: Prayer’s role in government


By Lyle Denniston | SCOTUSblog

At 10 a.m. on Wednesday, a constitutional issue returns to the Supreme Court after a three-decade absence: the role that prayer may play in government meetings.  Arguing for the local government in Town of Greece v. Galloway will be Thomas G. Hungar of the Washington office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, with twenty minutes of time.  Supporting the town, at least in part, for the U.S. government as an amicus will be Deputy Solicitor General Ian H. Gershengorn, with ten minutes.  Arguing for the town residents who challenged the prayer practice will be Douglas Laycock of Charlottesville, Virginia, a University of Virginia law professor, with thirty minutes.


America’s history sometimes provides the most important key to what its Constitution means.  Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court said this about the use of a paid chaplain to pray at the beginning of a state legislature’s public meetings: “The opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country. From colonial times through the founding of the Republic and ever since, the practice of legislative prayer has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”

That was not all of what the Court had said in the Marsh v. Chambers decision in July 1983, but it turned out to be enough to allow such prayers.  If that history still justifies the practice, then the Supreme Court will have no difficulty deciding Town of Greece v. Galloway.  But the constitutional law governing church-government relations has grown much more complex since then, and it is one of the most divisive constitutional fields for the Court.


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November 2013