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Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court agreed Monday to consider whether prayers can be offered at government meetings -- a practice that's been common in Congress and throughout the states for more than two centuries.
The religious expression case, which comes to the court from the town of Greece, N.Y., focuses on the first 10 words of the First Amendment, ratified in 1791: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
That Establishment Clause was violated, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year, when the Greece Town Board repeatedly used Christian clergy to conduct prayers at the start of its public meetings. The decision created a rift with other appeals courts that have upheld prayer at public meetings, prompting the justices to step in.
Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based Christian non-profit group, appealed the case to the Supreme Court. It is supported in separate briefs by 49 mostly Republican members of Congress and 18 state attorneys general.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group, is representing the two women who challenged the town's practice, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens.
Kenneth Klukowski, a lawyer for the Family Research Council who filed a brief on behalf of the 49 U.S. House members, said the Supreme Court was correct to take the case to clear up differences among lower courts on the issue of religious expression. It represents the first such case to reach the high court in a generation, he said.
"If the Second Circuit's decision is what the Establishment Clause requires, then Congress has been violating the Establishment Clause since it was ratified in 1791," Klukowski said. His brief notes that in the 112th Congress, 97% of the prayers used to open House sessions were Christian, as opposed to Jewish or Muslim, yet the practice is widely accepted.
Greece invites clergy to deliver invocations prior to its board meetings, but does not require those prayers to be inclusive and non-sectarian. According to Americans United, two-thirds of the prayers delivered between 1999 and June 2010 contained references to Jesus Christ, Your Son, the Holy Spirit or Jesus.
"A town council meeting isn't a church service, and it shouldn't seem like one," said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a written statement.
"Government can't serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others. That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion."
The court will hear the case in its next term, which begins in October. Its decision, expected by June 2014, could have broad implications for public schools and events, as well as for individuals who seek to convey religious messages.
Contributing: Meaghan McDermott of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.