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Steadfast opposition to public prayer took small-town litigant to Supreme Court

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The need for a firm barrier between church and state is as clear now for Susan Galloway as it was in grade school, when she was expected to sing carols at the Christmas show.

Galloway grew up in McHenry, Ill., a town northwest of Chicago with few other Jews, and the carols sung in school made ample mention of Jesus. Galloway refused to take part.

“It was against everything I was taught,” Galloway told JTA.

As an adult living in the Rochester, N.Y., suburb of Greece, Galloway encountered a similar problem. Each town board meeting would open with a Christian prayer that mentioned Jesus. She and a friend, Linda Stephens, both became uncomfortable.

Now the effort by Galloway and Stephens to stop it has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Oral arguments were held last week in a case that could substantially redefine the scope of acceptable prayers in public venues across the country.

“They’re asking us to bow our heads, they’re asking us to join them in the Lord’s Prayer, they’re asking us to stand — all of this is in the name of Jesus Christ,” Galloway, 51, said in an interview last week. “This one guy went on about the resurrection. We have preachers who stand there with their hands in the air.”

Galloway’s day in court is the culmination of six years of legal battles that began after she started attending board meetings regularly in a bid to save the local public access television channel. Initially she and Stephens appealed to the board supervisor, but they were relegated to subordinates who told them to get over it.

“They basically told us we could leave or put up with it,” Galloway said. “I was offended.”

They sought backing from outside groups, but many turned them away. Especially hurtful for Galloway was the deaf ear from the Rochester Board of Rabbis.

“I presented the issue, and I hoped other rabbis would see it that way,” said Rabbi Simeon Kolko, a childhood friend of Galloway who agreed to make the case on her behalf. “There was not a willingness.”

Rabbi Larry Kotok, the board president, did not respond to a request for comment.

At first, Galloway said, she and Stephens felt ostracized; then it got worse. Threatening letters came in, some signed “666,” the Christian signifier of the devil. Stephens’ home was vandalized. Galloway believes hers was spared because she lives on a busy street.

But Galloway refused to be cowed — a product, she said, of an upbringing that stressed believing in the best of others. A soft-spoken rehabilitation specialist who works with the elderly — “I love bubbies!” — Galloway concedes a stubborn streak.

“I wanted to believe if you have a conversation with people and you explain to them a point of view and they understand something, there’s a way to work the issue out,” she said. “But they did not want to talk or negotiate or anything.”

With the assistance of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Galloway and Stephens pressed the issue. At first the town seemed responsive, opening up the sessions to prayers of other faiths four times in 2008. But the sides couldn’t settle and the matter went to the courts.

The fact that the Supreme Court is taking the case is not necessarily good news for Galloway. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit ruled on her behalf, but when the Supreme Court considers appeals from lower courts it mostly intends to reverse the decision.

Still, Galloway has accrued the support — from Jewish and non-Jewish groups — she felt was missing in the case’s early days. An array of major organizations — including the Reform movement, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee — have filed friend-of-the-court briefs on her behalf.

“It sends a message to people who are coming that maybe they don’t belong, maybe they will be treated differently,” said Sammie Moshenberg, the Washington director for the NCJW. “It creates a climate that makes folks feel like they’re not necessarily part of the political process.”

The concern going into the oral hearing was that the court would substantially expand the definition of permitted prayer in a 1983 case, Marsh v. Chambers. That decision, based on a case related to prayers in the Nebraska Legislature, has been widely interpreted as allowing nonsectarian prayer in legislative bodies.

The Town of Greece is arguing that the ban on prayers should be limited to those that proselytize or defame other faiths. If the Supreme Court agrees, sectarian public prayer would be permitted.

Jewish organizations were heartened that during oral arguments, the lawyer for Galloway and Stephens, Douglas Laycock, moved the court to consider a different issue: Whether a publicly attended town board meeting should be considered as equivalent to a legislature.

In legislature cases, the argument goes, the affected parties — the lawmakers — willingly entered a system with existing rules and traditions that could include prayer. In a town board meeting, the affected parties are ordinary citizens going about their daily business.

“[The Marsh case] is adults elected by their constituents to go into a legislature where there’s a history of prayers being offered at every session,” said Michael Lieberman, the ADL’s Washington counsel. “This is different. The town council is the place where ordinary citizens must go to get a zoning variance or complain about cable service.”

For Galloway, it was a thrill to see Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan challenge the Town of Greece’s lawyer, Thomas Hungar, by imagining a hypothetical in which the court proceedings had been preceded by the same benediction recited at Greece’s board meetings.

“Suppose that as we began this session of the Court, the chief justice had called a minister up to the front of the courtroom, facing the lawyers, maybe the parties, maybe the spectators,” Kagan said. “And the minister had asked everyone to stand and to bow their heads in prayer and the minister said the following: He said, we acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We draw strength from His resurrection. Blessed are you who has raised up the Lord Jesus. You who will raise us in our turn and put us by His side. The members of the Court who had stood responded amen, made the sign of the cross, and the chief justice then called your case. Would that be permissible?”

“I don’t think so, your honor,” said Hungar, who then attempted to distinguish between legislative prayer and prayer in a courtroom.

Galloway believes that Kagan seized on that account of a Town of Greece prayer opening because she also is Jewish and has faced similar incidents in the course of her career.

“We’ve all had experiences that have been difficult,” Galloway said. “These are things common to Jewish people.”

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