A federal appeals court said last year that such a "steady drumbeat" of Christian invocations violates the Constitution's prohibition against government endorsement of religion. Now, the issue is set to come before the Supreme Court. Next week -- soon after the court's marshal announces a new session with the phrase "God save the United States and this honorable court" -- the justices will once again tackle the role of religion in the public square.
At issue are the town board meetings in Greece, N.Y., a Rochester suburb, which hosts a "chaplain of the month" before board members begin their official business. Nearly all of the invited chaplains are Christian, and "more often than not," the Christian clergy "called on Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit to guide the council's deliberations."
Some local taxpayers, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, reached out to my friends at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which filed suit to keep board meetings secular. The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in their favor, but the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case on appeal -- and will hear arguments this week.
If this legal dispute sounds at all familiar, it's because the Supreme Court already weighed in on legislative prayers 30 years ago, concluding in a case called Marsh v. Chambers that these invocations are legally permissible.
So is the outcome obvious, given the precedent? Perhaps not -- as the 2nd Circuit found, in the decades since Marsh, court rulings have gone further to separate government from endorsing a specific faith tradition. And since Greece, N.Y., has promoted Christian pastors nearly exclusively, the case before the justices will be well worth watching.For that matter, in Marsh, the issue was a legislative invocation where members of the public are mere spectators -- while in town board meetings, the public actually participates, and it's more directly relevant that local officials not make Americans feel like second-class citizens in their own community.
Oral arguments are scheduled for Wednesday morning.
Also from the God Machine this week:
* The Public Religion Research Institute published its annual American Values Survey, and found some interesting religio-political differences between Libertarians, Tea Party members, and Republicans in general.
* Remember that Tennessee judge who ordered a family to change their baby's name from Messiah to Martin? The Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew was sanctioned this week by the Tennessee Board of Judicial Conduct, which said the judge relied on an inappropriate religious bias in violation of the state judicial code of conduct (thanks to reader R.P for the tip).
* There have been a series of religious controversies in recent years at the Air Force Academy, which this week announced that cadets will no longer be required to recite "So help me God" as part of the school's Honor Oath. The religious right movement is, to put it mildly, not pleased.
* And former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) told radical preacher John Hagee this week, "Jesus destroyed Satan so that we could be free and that is manifested in what is called the Constitution of the United States. God created this nation and God created the Constitution; it is written on biblical principles." For the record, the Constitution is entirely secular, and makes no reference to Christianity of the Bible.