ADL “Deeply Disturbed” By Supreme Court’s Sanction of Divisive Sectarian Prayer at Local Town Boards

New York, NY, May 5, 2014 … The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) today said that it is “deeply disturbed and profoundly troubled” by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision sanctioning explicitly sectarian prayers before local town boards.  In Greece v. Galloway, a closely divided Court decided that a local policy resulting in virtually all invocations before a town board being Christian in nature did not violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause.

The Court’s decision reversed a lower court decision unanimously finding the policy unconstitutional.

Barry Curtiss-Lusher, ADL National Chair, and Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, issued the following statement:

We are deeply disturbed and profoundly troubled by this decision.  The rule announced by the Court today authorizes elected officials or clergy to give sectarian prayers in the name of Jesus, Hashem, Allah or any other deity before Congress, state legislatures, or local town boards.  The religiously divisive implications of this new rule are troubling in any of these contexts, however it is particularly disturbing at the local level where ordinary citizens seek recourse from public officials and will likely feel pressured to participate in religious observances not of their own faith.

Although the decision does not facially overturn long-standing Establishment Clause standards that are essential in other contexts, we are deeply concerned that taken out of context, certain language from the opinion could be used to undermine these standards and in future cases we will urge courts to narrowly interpret the opinion.

This is the first time the Supreme Court has ruled on legislative prayer since its Marsh v. Chambers decision 30 years ago.  The Court represented that its ruling on the Town of Greece’s invocation policy is simply based on its prior ruling.  The decision, however, opens the door wide to overtly sectarian prayers before public meetings of government bodies.

Legislative invocations and prayers can now only be limited where there is a “pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible purpose.”  This limitation does not adequately protect those who are in religious minorities or those who are non-religious from feeling isolated, vulnerable or like second-class citizens in their own communities.

Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Elena Kagan illustrated that the Court’s majority paid little heed to the actual way in which the invocations have been delivered in the Town of Greece, where the typically small number of meeting attendees have frequently been asked to stand and pray in Jesus’ name when meetings convene, or to call unwanted attention to themselves by walking out.

Justice Kagan concluded her dissent by stating – “[w]hen the citizens of this country approach their government, they only do so as Americans, not as members of one faith or another.  And that means that even in a partly-legislative body, they should not confront-government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines.”

ADL joined with the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Interfaith Alliance Foundation in a coalition brief in this case.

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