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U.S. supreme court allows prayer at government meetings

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the practice was one ‘accepted by the framers’ of the Constitution

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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld citizens’ right to pray at government meetings, in a divided decision which said the practice did not violate religious freedoms.

The court’s five conservative justices said “the nation’s history and tradition have shown that prayer in this limited context could coexist with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”

At issue were town meetings in Greece, New York, where clergy had been invited to offer a prayer, which in the last eight years had been exclusively Christian.

Two atheists and a Jewish resident brought the case before the Supreme Court arguing that the practice was unconstitutional, particularly because it was solely Christian.

The high court’s five conservative justices, all Roman Catholics, found their arguments “unpersuasive,” while its four progressives -- three Jews and a Catholic -- voted to end the prayers.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the practice was one “accepted by the framers” of the Constitution.

“There is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief,” the decision said.

The prayers may have invoked “the name of Jesus, but they also invoked universal themes, e.g. by calling for a spirit of cooperation.”

The prayers neither “denigrate, proselytize or betray an impermissible government purpose,” it added.

The basis for religious freedom in the United States is found in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Conservative and faith-based groups were jubilant over the decision.

“Speech honoring God and invoking His blessing on our land should be welcomed, not treated with hostility,” said Ralph Reed, leader of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.

“With today’s decision, the government officials that faith-based voters help to elect can provide a forum for such expressions without fear of being reversed by future courts,” Reed said, adding that prayer at public events “is a long and cherished tradition in our country and is woven into the fabric of American society.”

A longtime activist for conservative causes, Reed said that with the new high court ruling in hand, his group would “redouble its efforts” to foster the introduction of prayer at more gatherings of town boards, school groups and city councils across the United States.

Another conservative group, the Family Research Council, also applauded the U.S. high court.

“The court today has upheld our first and most fundamental freedom,” said Tony Perkins, president of the group.

“The court has rejected the idea that as citizens we must check our faith at the entrance to the public square.

“This is an historic victory for all Americans of faith and for the common-sense reading of the constitution itself.”

Republican Senator Ted Cruz also welcomed the ruling, describing it on Twitter as a “great victory for religious liberty.”

But the American Civil Liberties Union, which aims to champion the rights of individuals, described the ruling as “disappointing.”

“We strongly disagree with today’s 5-4 decision,” said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the ACLU of North Carolina.

“Today’s ruling is a disappointing setback for the rights of citizens of all beliefs to be treated equally by their government.

“Opening government meetings with prayers from a specific religious viewpoint tells citizens with different beliefs that they are not welcome and sends a message that the government endorses certain religious views over others.”

The Americans United for Separation of Church and State meanwhile warned the ruling would increase “the leeway of local boards to impose majority religion.”