Supreme Court mulls prayer in government questions

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Even before the United States became a nation, the founders puzzled over a dilemma that's still an emotional one today: how much separation should there be, or must there be, between the government and religion? That question was front and center Wednesday at the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving prayers at town meetings.

"Lord, thank you for gathering us here this evening."

It's the way cities and towns have opened public meetings for hundreds of years, in a country with God on its currency.

Something like a prayer brings the Supreme Court to order: "God save the United States and this honorable court."

But Justice Elena Kagan asked Wednesday, suppose it began with a minister leading a prayer and talking about the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Would that be permissible?

The issue comes to the court from the town of Greece, New York. Two residents, one Jewish, one atheist, sued, saying prayers that open their town board meetings, nearly always Christian, are unconstitutional government endorsement of a single faith: "We ask these things in your Holy name, Amen."

"I don't think you should have to endure religious indoctrination in order to participate in your own town government," said Linda Stephen.

But the town says it has history on its side:

"We have a rich tradition, back to our founding fathers, of opening legislative meetings with a prayer," said John Auberger, town supervisor.

Several of the Supreme Court's liberals today questioned the practice, saying those who attend a town board meeting to ask for something may feel compelled to join a prayer to avoid offending board members.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked, "Wouldn't those people feel coerced?"

But lawyers for the town say both houses of Congress have always started their days with prayers, from paid chaplains, a practice the Supreme Court endorsed 30 years ago.

Justice Stephen Breyer suggested that the court could draw up rules to make local prayers more inclusive, like those in Congress, to all faiths.

But Justice Samuel Alito said, "I just don't see how it is possible to compose anything that you could call a prayer that is acceptable to all these groups."

A majority of the justices seem willing to let government-led prayer continue without drawing up new rules, based on not much more than the fact that it's been done since the nation's founding.