Senate Prayer at Risk? 34 Senators File Court Brief
Posted at 12:49 p.m. on Aug. 5, 2013
Thirty-four senators are concerned an upcoming Supreme Court case could affect one of the Senate’s long-standing traditions — the daily Senate prayer.
On Monday, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., led the filing of an amicus brief in a case involving the town of Greece, N.Y., where the local board’s monthly meetings begin with a prayer (as do the meetings of the House and Senate).
“The Court of Appeals’ decision was flawed in its interpretation of the founders’ intention for religious liberty,” Rubio said in a statement. “America was founded on the ideal that Americans have the right to practice or not practice any religion, not that public forums should be free from religious expression or limited to court-approved prayer.”
The senators argue that “the practices that the court found unacceptable generally reflect the practice of legislative prayer in Congress.”
The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the town of Greece, saying that the way in which the prayer was implemented ran afoul of the Establishment Clause:
The town’s process for selecting prayer-givers virtually ensured a Christian view-point. Christian clergy delivered each and every one of the prayers for the first nine years of the town’s prayer practice, and nearly all of the prayers thereafter. In the town’s view, the preponderance of Christian clergy was the result of a random selection process. The randomness of the process, however, was limited by the town’s practice of inviting clergy almost exclusively from places of worship located within the town’s borders. The town fails to recognize that its residents may hold religious beliefs that are not represented by a place of worship within the town. Such residents may be members of congregations in nearby towns or, indeed, may not be affiliated with any congregation. The town is not a community of religious institutions, but of individual residents, and, at the least, it must serve those residents without favor or disfavor to any creed or belief.
Except when there’s a guest chaplain, the Senate’s daily prayer is delivered by the same individual, retired Rear Adm. Barry C. Black, a Seventh-day Adventist. Black’s prayers are known to delve into political issues of the day, particularly when lawmakers find themselves on the precipice of self-inflicted disaster.
The 34 senators, including the Senate Republican leaders and one Democrat — Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana — signed on to the Rubio amicus brief, which refutes the appellate court’s arguments point by point, including the court’s analysis of Marsh v. Chambers, a Supreme Court decision regarding public funding of the chaplaincy of the Nebraska Legislature.
“In this religiously diverse Nation, the best means of ensuring that the government does not prefer any particular religious view in the context of legislative prayer is not to silence some such prayers while allowing others,” the senators write. “It is to allow those who pray to do so in accordance with the dictates of their consciences.”