Invoking God before meetings, whether in courts or town halls, is a common practice across the country, including in the Supreme Court. This week the question of invoking God and its constitutionality is coming under fire after two women from New York filed a case against the use of prayer in town board meetings.
The new case stems from complaints voiced by Susan Galloway, a Jewish woman, and Linda Stephens, an atheist. Both felt like “outcasts” during a town board meeting in Greece, N.Y. that began with Christian prayers. Galloway and Stephens filed a lawsuit backed by Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and won in the lower district courts.
“Government should be inclusive,” Galloway said, according to a July 25 article in Bloomberg. Stephens also argued that the government too frequently mixes “Christian conservative religion and town politcs,” Bloomberg reported.
The Supreme Court began to hear the case Wednesday, revamping the separation of church and state debate. One of the major things in question is whether the use of prayer and invocations of God are constitutional.
“The city of Greece is violating the Establishment Clause of the Constitution,” Rev. Craig Mousin, DePaul’s ombudsman, said. “People can exercise their right (to religion) freely because Congress can make no laws for or against any religion.”
Though the violation of the Constitution may be clear, the lines dividing church and state are not.
“The separation between church and state should be better defined but it will never be adequate; it will never be fully defined. It’s an ongoing, constitutional matter,” Fr. James Halstead, the chair of DePaul’s religious studies department, said.
“The laws that presently exist give some clarity, but the interpretation of the laws given by judges contradict each other and so the interpretation of the laws both clarify and confuse.”
The court has, in recent years, seen more justices who favor religion in public settings rather than a complete division of the two, a fact that may be reflected in their ruling. This is not the first case where religion and the right to express it have been questioned.
The issue stems back to the 1980s and ’90s, when rulings in similar cases contradicted one another.
“The Supreme Court [in the 1980s]held that a state legislature was entitled to open its sessions with a prayer,” David Barnum of the political science department said. “The contrary precedent is Lee v. Weisman…in which Justice Kennedy held that opening a middle school graduation ceremony with a prayer violated the Establishment Clause.”
The Establishment Clause protects the right to practice any religion without having it interfere in the rights of others. The court, while trying to uphold the clause and the Constitution, has seen judges in recent years who favor religion in public settings rather than a complete division of the two.
However, the revived debate raises questions about where the two end and if there can ever be a detachment of church from state.
“It’s never going to get resolved because this is earth, this is law on earth. We’re not dealing with arithmetic,” Halstead said. “People have vastly different opinions on the relationship between church and state and human beings have different sensitivities to prayer in public.”
The protection of religious expression is constitutionally upheld and protected. The nature of the relationship and of religious prayers is regarded alongside the previous rulings set forth by the court as they begin the case.