|AJC Urges Supreme Court to Reaffirm Unconstitutionality of Prayers at Government Functions|
October 2, 2013 – New York – AJC is urging the U.S. Supreme Court to find
unconstitutional a town board’s use of prayers at its meetings.
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
“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
“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