The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a dispute Wednesday on one of the most divisive issues in America — the separation of church and state.
We spoke to Susan Galloway, a Jewish resident of Greece, N.Y., one of two residents who filed a lawsuit opposing prayers at town meetings all the way up to America’s highest court. (The other plaintiff in the case is Linda Stephens, an atheist.)
Galloway is fighting a policy in Greece — a town of about 100,000 near Rochester, NY. — that lets religious leaders and others give prayers before town board meetings. The vast majority of these prayers have been Christian, according to an appeals court petition that found the policy unconstitutional.
“You’ll see the town government officials crossing themselves, or bowing their heads, and their hands are clasped like they’re praying,” Galloway, a 51-year-old therapeutic recreation specialist, told me. “It just feels uncomfortable.”
When Galloway chooses not to participate in the prayers, she said, “People are looking at you and you feel very uncomfortable because you know what you are doing, some people are saying that’s disrespectful, even though that’s not my intention.”
Galloway said she brought the suit with Stephens because historically “religion and government has not been the best combination.”
The topic of religion is, of course, a contentious one. Since she brought her suit in 2008, Galloway says she’s gotten hate mail and nasty comments from prayer givers at the beginning of town board meetings.
“They have said some disparaging things to us regarding this case,” she said, “saying we’re ignorant of history and that we’re the minority and we should be quiet.”
The Supreme Court will decide whether Greece’s policy violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, which says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled Greece’s legislative Christian-dominated prayer policy violated that clause — even though not all legislative prayer was unconstitutional.
“We do not hold that the town may not open its public meetings with a prayer or invocation,” the court ruled. “…What we do hold is that a legislative prayer practice that, however well-intentioned, conveys to a reasonable objective observer under the totality of the circumstances an official affiliation with a particular religion violates the clear command of the Establishment Clause.”
The town of Greece is asking the Supreme Court to overturn that decision. The high court last heard a case involving legislative prayer back in 1983, when the justices said legislative prayer “has become part of the fabric of our society.”