Whose prayer? A New York case brings the issue to the high court

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The First Amendment guarantees the right of religious expression. It also guarantees freedom from religion, especially when government appears to endorse one faith in a way that causes citizens to feel the sting of discrimination.

The U.S. Supreme Court has an important opportunity to uphold the latter freedom, which is essential to safeguarding the former. The court is set to hear arguments today in a case from Greece, N.Y., near Rochester, where government invited clergy to lead a prayer before monthly meetings of the town board. The prayers supposedly could be offered by anyone, and no one would be compelled to take part.

But for eight years from the inception of the prayer, it was delivered exclusively by Christian clergy. They often explicitly invoked the name of Jesus Christ and professed to speak for all who attended the board meetings, public officials and citizens alike.

Two town residents -- one of them an atheist -- sued, claiming the prayer violated the Constitution. They asserted that people who came to town board meetings to do public business were effectively coerced into taking part in a Christian prayer, even if they were of a different faith or no faith. The alternative, lawyers for the plaintiffs argue, was a visible dissent "from majoritarian religious norms."

In response, the board recruited clergy of other faiths to lead the prayer, but that lasted only a few months. The plaintiffs in the case reported they were harassed by other local residents who tried to ostracize them.

A federal appeals court ruled against the town board, concluding that "an objective, reasonable person would believe that the town's prayer practice had the effect of affiliating the town with Christianity." Board members appealed to the Supreme Court.

Lawyers for the town board cite a 1983 opinion by the high court that upheld prayers before sessions of Congress and state legislatures. The court ruled that prayers are "deeply embedded" in the nation's social fabric.

But the court opinion also noted that the prayers in question, unlike those in the current case, were not sectarian and did not include references to Jesus -- a critical distinction.

Despite persistent efforts to breach it, the wall that separates church and state remains one of the most vital sources of American freedom. In the case before it, the Supreme Court can and should reinforce that wall.

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