Ideally, governmental bodies would refrain from including prayers — even ecumenical, "lowest-common-denominator" ones — in their public proceedings. But if prayers are to be offered, they certainly shouldn't be monopolized by a single religious tradition. That is how the Supreme Court should rule in a case involving a town in New York state.
On Monday, the justices agreed to hear a case involving the town of Greece, N.Y., which since 1999 has begun its official meetings with a prayer. Although the town on rare occasions has invited non-Christian leaders (including a Wiccan priestess) to deliver invocations, two-thirds of the prayers have mentioned "Jesus Christ," "Jesus," "Your Son" or the "Holy Spirit."
The appeals court that heard the case didn't rule that all prayers at public meetings must be nonsectarian. But it did offer a legal test for judges to employ in evaluating the practices of local governments. It said that "legislative prayer practice that, however well intentioned, conveys to a reasonable objective observer under the totality of the circumstances an official affiliation with a particular religion violates the clear command of the establishment clause." (That conclusion by the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals takes a more critical view of sectarian prayers than the one taken by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which in March upheld prayers at city council meetings in the California city of Lancaster.)