West Virginia AG weighs in on prayer case

CHARLESTON – West Virginia’s Republican attorney general is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn a decision that said praying before a legislative session by a town in New York violated separation of church and state.

West Virginia joined 22 other states in a friend of the court brief asking the high court to overturn a ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York that declared Greece, N.Y.’s, practice of opening its legislative sessions violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said.

The brief asks the U.S. Supreme Court to create an unambiguous ruling permitting prayer before legislative bodies without requiring legislative leaders to screen prayers for sectarian references, Morrisey said.

“West Virginia and other states filed this brief because opening a legislative session with prayer dates back to the founding of our republic,” he said. “West Virginia has a proud tradition of beginning a public meeting with a time for prayer, and I believe this practice should continue and the free expression of faith should not be quashed.”

The town board in Greece, which is near Rochester, in 1999 began opening meetings with a prayer from a chaplain of the month. The town said all faiths and atheists could give the opening prayer, but the appeals court said nearly all of the chaplains were Christian and it could be viewed as an endorsement of a religious viewpoint.

“Roughly two-thirds contained references to ‘Jesus Christ,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘Your Son’ or the ‘Holy Spirit,'” the appeals court’s unanimous opinion written by Judge Guido Calabresi said.

In 1983, the United States Supreme Court ruled legislative prayer to be constitutional and not in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause as long as the prayer didn’t proselytize, advance or disparage any one religion, Morrisey said. However, various rulings at the appellate court level in the three decades since have created confusion over what can be said, who can say it and whether lawmakers are required to screen prayers first, he said.

The West Virginia Legislature is with 49 states that opens the legislative sessions with prayer. The Senate President and House Speaker each designate a member of the chamber as its chaplain.

Chaplains provide a short, non-denominational prayer at the start of the session, unless a citizen is invited by a member of the respective chamber to give the opening prayer.

Oral arguments in Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway will be held during the Supreme Court’s upcoming term.