AUSTIN — The Texas Attorney General’s Office today filed an amicus brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a federal appeals court’s ruling that struck down the town of Greece, New York’s practice of allowing citizens to offer a prayer to begin monthly town board meetings. Attorney General Abbott and Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller filed the “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the 23-state coalition, arguing that the decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is improper and contrary to the longstanding history and tradition of legislative prayer in this country.
“Despite hundreds of years of established tradition and a Supreme Court ruling upholding the right of legislatures to convene each day with a prayer, the town of Greece, New York, has been improperly prohibited from beginning their monthly town board meetings with a prayer,” Attorney General Abbott said. “Today’s legal action reflects a bipartisan, multistate effort to defend the longstanding and constitutionally protected right of legislative bodies to begin their meetings with prayer.”
The case involves an Establishment Clause challenge to the town of Greece, New York’s practice of allowing citizens to offer a prayer during monthly town board meetings. Atheists sued the city, and a federal appeals court ruled against the town of Greece’s practice. In the amicus brief filed today, the states argue that public acknowledgments of God at official functions have been customary since the nation’s founding. The states point out that many governmental bodies on the local, state and federal level – indeed, the United States Congress and all 50 state governmental bodies – have a long history of beginning meetings with prayer. In Marsh v. Chambers, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of governments opening every legislative session with a clergy-led prayer.
The states are urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the decision by the federal appeals court and hold that legislative prayers remain constitutional. The states’ brief also asks the high court to use this case to provide clarity to the Establishment Clause doctrine by adopting a single Establishment Clause test that is clear, workable and faithful to the text and history of the First Amendment.
The State of Texas’ action in the Greece, N.Y., case is just the latest of Attorney General Abbott’s many efforts to defend public acknowledgments of religion. The State’s religious liberties cases include:
• In 2012, the Attorney General’s Office intervened in the Kountze High School cheerleader case after the cheerleaders were improperly prohibited from including religious messages on the banners they created for football games. The attorney general’s actions defended the cheerleaders’ right to exercise their personal religious beliefs and the constitutionality of a state law that protects religious liberties for all Texans.
• In 2011, Attorney General Abbott sent a letter to Henderson County Judge Richard Sanders in response to a threat the county had received from the Freedom From Religion Foundation regarding a nativity scene on the grounds of the Henderson County courthouse.
• In 2011, the Attorney General’s Office submitted a legal brief asking a federal appeals court to uphold Medina Valley High School graduates’ constitutional rights to freely express their religious beliefs during graduation ceremonies.
• In July 2010, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott led a multistate coalition of 29 attorneys general in taking legal action to defend the annual National Day of Prayer.
• In January 2009, after Attorney General Abbott submitted a legal brief joined by all 50 state attorneys general, a federal judge cleared the way for President Barack Obama to include references to religion during his presidential inauguration.
• In 2007, Attorney General Abbott defeated a lawsuit that attempted to remove the words “under God” from the Texas Pledge of Allegiance.
• In 2005, Attorney General Abbott appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court and defended the State’s Ten Commandments monument, which stands on the Texas Capitol grounds. In that case, Van Orden v. Perry, the plaintiff sought to remove the Ten Commandments monument from the Capitol grounds, but Attorney General Abbott successfully argued that the monument was entirely constitutional.
• After Attorney General Abbott submitted a legal brief defending the right of Texas schoolchildren to begin each school day with the Pledge of Allegiance followed by a minute of silence to “reflect, pray, [or] meditate” before class, a federal appeals court upheld the Texas Moment of Silence law.