Should public prayers be allowed during government functions?

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“The U.S. Supreme Court delved into a subject Wednesday that has bedeviled it for decades: how to reconcile a tradition of public prayers with the Constitution’s ban on establishment of religion. At issue were almost exclusively Christian prayers that took place at town board meetings in Greece, N.Y.,” reports NPR’s Nina Totenberg.

The justices have struggled for decades with questions involving religious expressions that are connected to government. On the current court, conservatives have been willing to allow greater accommodation between government and religion. But the justices are closely divided, with Justice Anthony Kennedy often the decisive fifth vote.

For purposes of Wednesday’s case, the critical precedent is a 1983 decision that upheld nonproselytizing prayers in state legislatures.

Generally legislatures have been deemed different from courts or executive agencies. But even at the Supreme Court there is a daily invocation of God’s name. The court’s marshal opens each public session, intoning, “God save the United States and this honorable court.”

But what about explicitly sectarian prayers at local government meetings? Wednesday’s case, presenting that issue, involved two citizens who filed suit challenging the almost exclusively Christian prayers in the town of Greece.

Until 1999, the town opened its board meetings with a moment of silence. But when a new supervisor was elected, he instituted prayers from a rotating list of clergymen. For a decade, until the lawsuit, all of the clergymen and prayers were Christian.

One representative prayer was led by a Catholic priest, who opened the meeting with these words: “We acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We draw strength, vitality, and confidence from his resurrection at Easter. Jesus Christ, who took away the sins of the world, destroyed our death. Through his dying and in his rising, he has restored our life. Blessed are you, who has raised up the lord Jesus. You who will raise us, in our turn, and put us by his side.”

Today’s Question: Should public prayers be allowed during government functions?