(Reuters) – Bankrolled by powerful outside interests, what began as a dispute aired in the pages of a town’s local newspaper next week moves to the U.S. Supreme Court where justices could potentially roll back legal precedents that limit the role of religion in public life.
The battle pits two residents of an upstate New York town, backed by a civil liberties group advocating for the separation of church and state against a town supervisor supported by a prominent, evangelical Christian organization.
Both groups – Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Alliance Defending Freedom – have multi-million dollar budgets and litigate on a variety of related issues, often against each other.
Linda Stephens, 70, an atheist, and Susan Galloway, 51, who is Jewish, are both long-term residents of the conservative-leaning town of Greece, a Rochester suburb of around 100,000 people located about 300 miles northwest of New York City. They filed a lawsuit in 2008 against the town objecting to the public prayer that precedes town board meetings, claiming it violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment prohibition on government establishment of religion.
The Supreme Court has previously said prayers that take place before a state legislative session are acceptable. Galloway and Stephens say the Greece prayers are different. Their lawyers have a series of arguments, including that the intimate nature of a town meeting makes the use of prayers more coercive than in the state legislature context. Residents, who are often active participants at town meetings, “experience substantial pressure to participate in the prayers,” thus leading to a constitutional violation, the lawyers say.