Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens has joined his counterparts in 23 other states to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to protect the tradition of legislative prayer.
The friend-of-the-court brief was filed as part of Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway. A lower court had ruled in the case that prayer at the beginning of a government assembly violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“The legality of legislative prayer is a major constitutional question before the United States Supreme Court, which will impact every government in Georgia,” Olens said. “The same Congress that drafted the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the Constitution also regularly opened in prayer.”
The Establishment Clause prohibits the government from favoring one religion over another.
Olens is familiar with the issue. While chairman of the Cobb County Commission, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Pelphrey v. Cobb County that there is no violation as long as a government entity provides the opportunity for prayer without advocating a particular faith.
Gerry Weber, an Atlanta attorney who represented the plaintiffs in the case, said the question of public prayer is tricky.
“Much of the question is one of details,” Weber said. “If there’s an atmosphere that makes people of minority faiths feel like outsiders in their own governmental buildings, that creates an Establishment Clause problem.”
In Georgia, many local governments and the state House and Senate begin each meeting with a prayer. In the General Assembly, each chamber has a “pastor of the day,” typically a preacher at a lawmaker’s church who volunteers to come deliver a morning sermon. Those pastors are generally selected on a first-come, first-served basis.