Church, State & the Supreme Court

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

U.S. Supreme Court (Steve Heap/Shutterstock)

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.


Sarah Barringer Gordon

Produced by:

Jillian Weinberger


T.J. Raphael

Comments [8]

Maroloh from Boston

When my daughter was in 1st or 2nd grade, I was watching one day when a student teacher (a very nice one) innocently read a book in which "our lord Jesus" spoke to the animals.

She came home from school asking if we believe in Jesus (we're nonreligious Jews) and when I said "no darling, we don't" she went into her room and cried. NO religious observances belong in schools or at official public meetings.

Nov. 07 2013 03:05 PM
John A

Prayers as Americas old way to relax and meditate have a value and should not be summarily discarded. But public pray-ers are advised though to back away from christian-specific talk to use the more universal "God".

Nov. 06 2013 04:35 PM
Bob Winckler from Alaska

I was quite disappointed and surprised in today's segment of "The Takeaway" that discussed today's Supreme Court case regarding prayer at public meetings. Your guest, Sarah Barringer Gordon, while at first seeming to neutral regarding the issue, made it clear at the end of her interview that her personal opinion favored allowing prayer at public meeting.

I listen to NPR because I've come to expect that both sides of a question will be given equal weight. That was not the case today. I would have thought that "The Takeaway" would have made some effort to also interview someone like Rev. Barry Lynn, of "Americans United For Separation of Church and State," whose organization is making their case to the Supreme Court as we speak. I realize that Rev. Lynn would is not likely to be available today, but an interview with him could have been prerecorded.

I'm quite disappointed, and I expect, given the current makeup of the Supreme Court, that their ruling in this case will be a First Amendment disaster.

Nov. 06 2013 04:18 PM
Shava Nerad from Salem MA

I am a member of one of the oldest Unitarian Churches on this continent, in the city responsible for our civic separation of church and state.

That's thanks to the repentance of Judge Sewell over his letting Puritan values blind him in the Salem witch trials -- a revelation ground into his conscience when one of the girl-accusers retracted her testimony in remorse after six months and twenty unjust deaths.

Please do not judge the Unitarian framers of the Constitution by the plurality secular UUs of today. Unitarians, like Quakers (Society of Friends), got their popular name originally from detractors who misunderstood their liberal mystical Christianity. Many of the Unitarian Transcendentalists (Emerson, for example) were leading Christian theologians, artists, reformers, and philosophers of the early 1800s period.

Nov. 06 2013 02:50 PM
Julie from Minn

As long as no one is forced to participate in the prayer I don't think their rights are being violated.

Nov. 06 2013 02:36 PM

Each US citizen has the right to speak freely as long as they don't infringe on another's same/several rights. I have a low tolerance for bigots, and evidently a bigot and or bully came to this little town of Greece in 1999 and decided to be exclusive and divisive by using a certain set of religious speech. There are all sorts of inspirational words to share without imposing only one. Of course, if you believe a certain way you are free to speak of your belief. However, when your speech takes over a political space to the point of dismissing and displacing another's freedom to be equal within that space, you've infringed upon another's civil right.

Nov. 06 2013 01:25 PM
Vital brain

Time for a change: "One Nation for Freedom and Justice for all"

Nov. 06 2013 12:50 PM
veritat from Earth

Ms. Berringer Gordon wants to welcome taking serious and giving a platform to ideologies based on mistaken beliefs in supernatural myths, thoroughly debunked by science, that contradict themselves and exclude each other because she finds them so "creative".

The halls of academia clearly not always a reliable repository of rational thought.

Nov. 06 2013 09:48 AM

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