The role of religion in American public life has been challenged and questioned since the country's founding. Both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison objected when Congress hired its first Chaplains back in 1789. Though the House and Senate have maintained the positions ever since, the controversy continues.
Today, the Supreme Court considers the Establishment Clause for the first time in 30 years. The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway, and it centers on whether the town council of Greece, located in upstate New York, can open its meetings with prayer.
A federal district court ruled in favor of the town in 2008, but the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled for the plaintiffs because, as Judge Guido Calibresi wrote, the town council "virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint" with a "steady drumbeat of often specifically sectarian Christian prayers."
Sarah Barringer Gordon, professor of law and history at the University of Pennsylvania, examines the Greece case and the historical role of religion in public life.