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Yesterday was a good day for religious liberty at the Supreme Court, where five justices beat back an attempt to declare prayers at town meetings unconstitutional. It could have been a great day, however, if only the Court had accepted Justice Thomas’ invitation to declare the Establishment Clause completely inapplicable to state and local governments. But I’ll get to that in a minute.
The decision in Town of Greece v Galloway involved a small city in upstate New York (Greece) in which town board meetings open with a roll call, a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and – brace yourself – a prayer given by a rotating selection of local clergymen. Two town residents sued, arguing that the predominately Christian nature of the prayers (reflecting the composition of the local clergy) violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. The Court’s liberal bloc (Breyer, Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan) would have banned the town’s prayer tradition, relying on a dominant theory in many earlier cases that the First Amendment prohibits any government action that might appear to “endorse” religion.