Is Prayer Greek to Us?

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

“No one confuses sessions of Congress with a church service.”

You can say that again.

Brett Harvey, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom makes this point to me in an interview for National Review Online, about the case of an upstate New York town’s desire to pray before town-council meetings. Yesterday the Supreme Court agreed to hear the town of Greece’s case after a Second Circuit Appeals Court ruling found that because the town has predominantly Christian clergy, it needs to import non-Christians to lead the town council in prayer so non-Christians do not “feel like outsiders.”

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why aren’t there non-Christian prayers before the town council meetings in Greece, N.Y.? 

BRETT HARVEY: There have been non-Christian prayers. The prayer opportunity has been extended to people of many faiths, including Catholics, Protestants, Moravian, Universalist, Ba’hai, Islamic, Jewish, Mormon, Friends/Quaker, and Jehovah’s Witness. The Town of Greece does not control who volunteers to deliver the invocation. Any decision made about the nature of the prayers is determined by the citizens who volunteer, not the Town. The authors of the Bill of Rights sought God’s blessings on their public meetings. Americans today should be as free as the Founders were to pray.

LOPEZ: Are there no non-Christians who know any prayers in Greece? Is that why a court of appeals ruling suggested they find some out-of-towners to lead them in prayers? 

HARVEY: The prayer opportunity has been extended to people of all faiths, including atheists. The court of appeals punished the town because they didn’t bus in people from out of town to pray, but the town should not be forced to handpick out-of-towners to lead the Greeks in prayers. The citizens of the Town of Greece are capable of speaking for themselves.

LOPEZ: Is this an unusual circumstance Greece finds itself in, or have you seen this before?

HARVEY: Hundreds of towns throughout America find themselves under attack by groups seeking to stop the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer. Since 2004 20 different federal lawsuits have been filed demanding that local governments censor or abandon this historic tradition. A few people should not be able to extinguish the traditions of our nation merely because they heard something they didn’t like

LOPEZ: Barry W. Lynn has said that, “A town council meeting isn’t a church service, and it shouldn’t seem like one.” Doesn’t he have a point?

HARVEY: The Supreme Court acknowledged 30 years ago that seeking divine guidance and blessing on public proceedings is a part of the “history and tradition of this country.” Congress has done it for more than 220 years. No one confuses sessions of Congress with a church service.

LOPEZ: Why is legislative prayer important? Could it be a relic that is just asking for trouble today? 

HARVEY: Because the authors of the Constitution invoked God’s blessing on public proceedings, this tradition should not suddenly be deemed unconstitutional. The Declaration of Independence notes that our Creator has granted inalienable rights, it is perfectly constitutional to allow citizens to petition the Creator for blessing and guidance according to their own conscience. It not only protects the rights of citizens, it also solemnizes public meetings.

LOPEZ: What is Marsh v. Chambers and why is it important to Greece?

HARVEY: It is a decision of the United States Supreme Court where the Court upheld the historic practice of legislative prayer. The practice of the Greece board is consistent with the Supreme Court’s ruling in Marsh.

LOPEZ: What would be a helpful ruling from the Court, for the sake of future challenges like this one? For the sake of freedom of religion? 

HARVEY: A decision by the Court reaffirming the practice of legislative prayer and making clear that prayer givers are allowed to pray according to their own faith and traditions.

LOPEZ: Is there a danger that we are crying “religious freedom!” a little too often to be believable? 

HARVEY: Religious freedom is our first liberty set out in the Constitution and the cornerstone our nation was founded upon. It must be vigilantly protected. Americans today should be as free as the Founders were to pray. 

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