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Supreme Court of the United States

A witness to history: The Supreme Court and Prayer

By Brett Harvey posted on:
October 17, 2017

For more than five years, the Town of Greece has defended a lawsuit intended to silence or censor public prayers.  Greece, NY opens its public meetings by allowing citizens to voluntarily deliver prayers, a centuries old tradition.  Congress, members of the legislature from every state, and thousands of counties and municipalities around the country also open their meetings with a prayer.  The court noted 30 years ago that opening public meetings with a prayer is part of the “fabric of our society.”

Entering the grand U.S. Supreme Court building to defend both our clients and the value of prayer itself, I walked past a long line of people who arrived well before dawn for the opportunity to witness the historic arguments.  Indeed, today’s arguments are momentous because the Court’s decision will help define religious liberty in America.

On November 6, 2013, the High Court heard arguments from both sides.  The core questions are whether the Constitution permits meetings to open with an invocation for Divine guidance; if so, do individuals retain the liberty to choose for themselves how to pray; or must the government censor prayers, or exclude the devout whose faith calls for specific types of prayers?

The drama in the packed courtroom was high.  The justices barraged each advocate with difficult questions as they probed for information and felt out the understanding of their colleagues on the court.  Allied Attorney Tom Hungar, of the firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, stepped up first to defend the town.  The Justices peppered Tom with questions about where the prayers were taking place and the whether the constitutional line depends on the type of government meetings taking place or the manner in which people pray.  Next, a representative of the Solicitor’s General office made it clear to the court that the U.S. government believes that prayer givers must be given the freedom to determine how they pray.

Finally, the University of Virginia Professor Doug Laycock faced the court on behalf of the prayer challengers.  The questions began immediately.  He failed to provide an answer to Justice Alito’s request for an example of a prayer that would be acceptable to people of all faiths.  In response to Justice Robert’s question, the challengers admitted that in their view a government official should tell clergy how to pray.  And Justice Kennedy repeatedly expressed concern over government officials censoring prayers.

The Court’s decision is expected in the spring.  It will be culmination of a six year battle.  Having helped craft the briefs and witnessed the arguments, I am optimistic that the Court will reaffirm the value of public prayer and recognize the rights of individuals to choose for themselves how to pray.

Have you signed the statement of support for prayer? Add your voice now.

Brett Harvey

Brett Harvey

Senior Counsel, Vice President of Allied Legal Affairs

Brett Harvey, Esq., serves as senior counsel and vice president of the Grants and Funding Team with Alliance Defending Freedom.

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