The state of Texas is leading a multi-state effort to protect the right of governmental bodies to begin meeting with prayer. On Friday the Texas Attorney General’s Office filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a federal appeals court’s ruling that struck down the town of Greece, New York’s practice of allowing citizens to offer a prayer to begin monthly town board meetings.
Attorney General Greg Abbott and Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller filed the “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the 23-state coalition, arguing that the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is improper and contrary to the longstanding history and tradition of legislative prayer in this country.
Abbott said, “Despite hundreds of years of established tradition and a Supreme Court ruling upholding the right of legislatures to convene each day with a prayer, the town of Greece, New York, has been improperly prohibited from beginning their monthly town board meetings with a prayer.” He went on to say that the legal action is a bipartisan, multistate effort to “defend the longstanding and constitutionally protected right of legislative bodies to begin their meetings with prayer.”
The case involves an Establishment Clause challenge to the New York town’s practice of allowing citizens to offer a prayer during monthly town board meetings. Atheists sued the city, and a federal appeals court ruled against the practice.
The states collectively argue that public acknowledgments of God at official functions have been customary since the nation’s founding. The amicus brief goes on to point out that many governmental bodies from the local to federal levels, including the United States Congress and all 50 state governmental bodies, have a long history of beginning meetings with prayer. They also make reference to Marsh v. Chambers, where the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of governments opening every legislative session with a clergy-led prayer.
The states are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the appeals court decision and hold that legislative prayers remain constitutional. The states’ brief also asks the high court to use this case to provide clarity to the Establishment Clause doctrine by adopting a single Establishment Clause test that is clear, workable and faithful to the text and history of the First Amendment.
Abbott’s role in the multi-state action is the latest in his series of efforts to defend public acknowledgments of religion. The most recent high profile case was in 2012 involving Kountze High School cheerleaders. The Attorney General’s Office intervened after the cheerleaders were improperly prohibited from including religious messages on the banners they created for football games. The Attorney General’s actions defended the cheer squad and under constitutional law, allowed them to exercise their right to their personal religious beliefs as well as display religious messages on signs at high school events.