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Supreme Court to weigh legality of prayer before public meetings

The Supreme Court will hear at least one of two potentially wide-ranging cases involving the separation of church and state in its next term, which starts in October 2013.

The court said it will grant a hearing in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, which involves the legality of saying a prayer before the start of public township board meeting. The court didn't say on Monday that it will hear a second case involving public school graduation ceremonies at church sanctuaries.

In 2008, two Greece, New York, residents sued over the town's practice of having a prayer delivered before board meetings, in a community heavily dominated by Christian churches.

At the heart of the case is the Establishment Clause in the Constitution's First Amendment, which deals with issues about the separation of church and state. The residents who sued say the board's policy about the prayers was tantamount to the endorsement of a religion.

They believed the practice violated the First Amendment because of the types of prayers offered. A U.S. district court said the prayers didn't violate the First Amendment. But the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in May 2012 overturned the lower court decision.

"The town's desire to mark the solemnity of its proceedings with a prayer is understandable; Americans have done just that for more than 200 years. But when one creed dominates others–regardless of a town's intentions–constitutional concerns come to the fore," Judge Guido Calabresi wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel last May.

Greece is mostly Christian, and most of the prayers offered at its board meeting were Christian or came from Christian clergy within that community.

After initial complaints in 2007, the board in Greece invited a Wiccan priestess, a chairman of a Baha'i congregation, and a lay Jewish man to give prayers. But most prayers were delivered by Christians.

The other case, Elmbrook School District v. Doe, involves a controversy over the rental and use of a church sanctuary to host graduation ceremonies for two public schools.

The court has yet to say if it will consider the Elmbrook case, deny it, or send it back to a lower court.

Constitution Daily contributor Lyle Denniston covered the Elmbrook story and its history in detail last month.

Related Story: Lyle Denniston: The Constitution and graduation ceremonies in church

In Brookfield, Wisconsin, a western suburb of Milwaukee, the two local high schools for years staged graduation exercises in the sanctuary of Elmbrook Church, an evangelical congregation not affiliated with any denomination. The practice began in 2000 with a choice by one of the high schools, at the request of its graduating class, to move the ceremony out of the school's gym, because of limited conditions there.

The church's leaders and its congregation had no role in the graduation celebration, and there was no one on hand to offer any kind of religious counseling.

But for nine people–current and former students and their parents–the site itself was the problem, with its religious symbolism and significance. They said the exposure to artifacts of faith offended them and compromised the experience of graduating.

The lawsuit continued, even though the district stopped using the sanctuary, as the challengers took the case on to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

A three-judge panel there agreed with a trial judge, finding no First Amendment religion problem. But the full circuit court reconsidered. Splitting 7-3, that court found that the Elmbrook Church site could not avoid being coercive for the students and their younger brothers and sisters attending the ceremony.

Among the parties involved in the case are The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.