The US Supreme Court on Monday allowed a New York town to start its public meetings with prayers, mostly of the Christian faith, in an order slammed as discriminatory by minorities.
Divided along ideological line in a five-four decision, the court found the practice ceremonial and not consequential enough to make members of other faiths feel unwanted or un-welcome.
But dissenting judges — the liberals — said the practice violated the constitution’s promise of granting equal share of the government to every American citizen, irrespective of their faith.
Writing for them, justice Elia Kagan said, ”[O]ur public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”
“Unfortunately, this decision may open the door to government sanctioned sectarian prayers,” said Harsh Voruganti of the Hindu American Foundation.
Greece town of New York state started the practice of opening its board meetings with prayers about 15 years ago.
The town did invite “a Jewish layman and the chairman of the local Baha’i temple to deliver prayers,” but a federal court ruled that they hadn't done enough.
Christians comprise around 78% of US population according to a recent survey by Pew. The rest are minorities including people of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu faiths.
While Evangelical Christians, and politicians welcome the decision, atheists, humanists, secularists and Hindu and Jewish groups said they were disappointed.
Greg Lipper, a lawyer with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, agreed, saying, “It definitely increases the leeway of local boards to impose majority religion.”
Greece town officials had argued that members of other faiths and, even atheists, were welcome to open its public meetings. But, it rarely happened in practice.
Two residents, Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, challenged the town saying in their lawsuit the practice made them uncomfortable.
But the court over-ruled them.
“Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond that authority of government to alter or define,” wrote justice Anthony M Kennedy for the majority decision.
The Rev Barry W Lynn, executive director of Americans United, which sponsored the lawsuit against Greece, said in a statement after the order that “The Supreme Court just relegated millions of Americans — both believers and nonbelievers — to second-class citizenship.”?