Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Podcast: The debate over public prayer hits the Supreme Court

November 8, 2013 by NCC Staff


One of the most widely watched cases in front of the Supreme Court this fall is Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case about prayers at public legislative meetings.  The National Constitution Center’s Jeffrey Rosen spoke with three experts this week who offered differing views on a complicated issue.

Continental_Congress_prayerMarci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, at Yeshiva University.  She has written frequently about church-state issues.

Steven D. Smith is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of San Diego School of Law, and co-director of that school’s Institute for Law & Religion and Institute for Law & Philosophy.  Professor Smith teaches in the areas of law and religion, constitutional law, and torts.

And Thomas Berg is the James L. Oberstar Professor of Law and Public Policy at the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) School of Law. He has written extensively on religious freedom, constitutional law, and the role of religion in law, politics and society.

Our discussion starts with the Establishment Clause of the Constitution’s First Amendment.  The clause famously states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

In theory, this clause prohibits the government from establishing an official religion. It also prohibits government from preferring one religion over another one, or preferring religion over non-religion.

The Town of Greece case is the most recent controversy to appear before the Court about the Establishment Clause.  The last major case on the subject was Marsh v. Chambers, a decision from 1983 that could be affected by the outcome in the Town of Greece case.

In the Marsh case, a divided Court said in a 6-3 decision that public prayer at the Nebraska legislature was allowed. Chief Justice Warren Burger bypassed a ruling earlier established in Lemon v. Kurtzman, and said the Nebraska practice was "simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country."

But in the Town Of Greece case, the Roberts Court will get its first chance to consider a ruling on public prayer.

Hear what our three experts believe are the key issues at stake the case in our podcast below.

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