Written by Emily Mullins
The United Church of Christ has joined an amicus brief supporting the separation of church and state in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, now before the United States Supreme Court. The brief, filed by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and joined by the UCC and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A), states that subjecting citizens to official prayer at local government meetings violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and demeans genuine faith.
"The church is strengthened, not diminished, when we observe the separation of church and state," said Don Clark, the UCC's general counsel, echoing a pronouncement the UCC adopted at its 20th General Synod.
On Nov. 6, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which two citizens successfully challenged the practice of an upstate New York's town council to open official meetings with prayers by local clergy. Citizens are commonly required to appear at these town council meetings to seek zoning variances or petition the council to take other official actions. The town's "practice of beginning a participatory local government meeting with a communal prayer infringes the liberty of conscience of not just religious minorities, but also of Christians who believe that worship should be voluntary," according to the brief joined by the UCC.
The Obama Administration disagrees with this stance. The U.S. Solicitor General, whose role is to supervise and conduct government litigation in the U.S. Supreme Court, says that official prayer at town meetings is not an establishment of religion "merely because most prayer-givers are Christian and many or most of their prayers contain sectarian references."
The U.S. Supreme Court last addressed government prayer in the 1983 case of Marsh v. Chambers, where it upheld the Nebraska legislature's policy of opening its sessions with prayer. Since then, there has been considerable debate over what limits the Marsh case and the U.S. Constitution impose on prayer at government gatherings.
"To many Christians, prayer cannot be reduced to mere ceremony," said Heather Kimmel, associate general counsel for the UCC. "It is an act of communication with God that is profound, personal and voluntary."