AJC Urges Supreme Court to Reaffirm Unconstitutionality of Prayers at Government Functions

Oct 02, 2013, 15:28 ET from American Jewish Committee

NEW YORK, Oct. 2, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- AJC is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to find unconstitutional a town board's use of prayers at its meetings.

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While such legislative prayers are not inevitably unconstitutional, they cross a constitutional line when they suggest that government prefers one faith, AJC noted in an amicus brief filed in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway. Furthermore, AJC warned that any decision sanctioning such prayers may lead to further challenges to the Establishment Clause.

"The Supreme Court should reject pleas to undo almost 70 years of Establishment Clause decision-making," said AJC General Counsel Marc Stern.

"The Court has long maintained that the government violates the Constitution by favoring one religion over others, even if it does not engage in outright coercion or explicit efforts to proselytize others," added Stern. "But given that a majority of the prayers recited to open Town of Greece board meetings are Christian, the perceived favoritism is blatant."

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had ruled that the practice of offering predominantly Christian prayers at the opening of Town of Greece board meetings created the impermissible impression that the town favored Christianity over other faiths.

AJC cautioned that more than prayers at town board meetings is at stake in the case, which raises directly the issue of whether outright coercion is necessary to constitute an Establishment Clause violation.

"The Court has struck down numerous government-sponsored programs relating to religion and religious exercises without finding any actual coercion, and for almost 70 years has been on record rejecting the argument that coercion should be installed as the sin qua non of an Establishment Clause violation," states the AJC brief.

"The proposition that coercion is a sufficient but not a necessary predicate for an Establishment Clause violation—that it represents the floor, not the ceiling, of the Establishment Clause's protective ambit—is deeply embedded in the Court's precedents," states the AJC brief.

AJC warned that honoring the Town's request would open anew matters long since settled, such as the constitutionality of school prayer.

"To appreciate just how far [the Town] and its amici are asking this Court to depart from its settled precedent, it is instructive to look back to the Court's earliest Establishment Clause opinions," states the AJC brief. "Those decisions drew no distinction between coercion, on the one hand, and aid, persuasion, promotion, sponsorship, influence, approval, or encouragement on the other hand. Rather, a wide range of non-coercive conduct by which the government put its thumb on the scale in favor of religion was understood and described as plainly unconstitutional."

The JCPA joined with AJC in the brief, which was prepared by Eric Tirschwell, a partner at Kramer, Levin and a member of AJC's Legal Committee.

SOURCE American Jewish Committee