WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court, which asks for God’s protection before every public session, will settle a dispute over prayer in the halls of government.
The case being argued at the court Wednesday involves prayers said at the start of town council meetings in Greece, N.Y., a Rochester suburb. It is the court’s first legislative prayer case since 1983, when the justices said that an opening prayer is part of the nation’s fabric and not a violation of the First Amendment.
But the federal appeals court in New York held that the town crossed a line and violated the Constitution by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers that stressed Christianity.
Under Chief Justice John Roberts, and with the replacement of Justice Sandra Day O’Connor with Justice Samuel Alito in 2006, the court has been more open to religion in public life. The case may serve as a test of the ongoing viability of the decision in the 1983 case, Marsh v. Chambers.
But it also could have an even broader impact, giving conservative justices the opportunity to jettison legal rules that have tended to rein in religious expression in the public square.
That is what some conservative Christian groups, Republican lawmakers and state officials are hoping for, and it’s what liberal interest groups fear. The issue extends well beyond prayer and could affect holiday displays, aid to religious schools, Ten Commandments markers and memorial crosses.
The Supreme Court “has issued a series of narrowly divided and splintered decisions that have confused the lower courts, baffled the public and incentivized government officials to suppress legitimate religious expression in order to avoid the costs and hazards of litigation,” said 85 members of Congress, almost all Republicans, in a court filing.
Among the examples of confusion cited are the court’s twin rulings on a single day in 2005 that upheld a Ten Commandments monument on the grounds of the Texas state capitol in Austin, yet declared unconstitutional a display in the McCreary County courthouse in Kentucky.