By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Delving into the controversial relationship between government and religion, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday agreed to consider whether a town in New York could allow members of the public, who in practice were nearly all Christian clergy, to open meetings with a prayer.
Two residents sued Greece, New York, in 2008, saying it was endorsing Christianity, a violation of the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment guarantee of separation of church and state.
Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens said the vast majority of prayer-givers since the practice started in 1999 were Christian ministers. Attendees would often be asked to join in or bow their heads, they alleged.
The Supreme Court ruled in a 1983 case, Marsh v. Chambers, that legislative sessions could begin with a prayer in most circumstances, citing the "unique history" of the practice throughout U.S. history.
The new case gives the nine justices the opportunity to outline "neutral principles" that would allow government entities to hold prayers without violating the Constitution, said Marci Hamilton, a First Amendment expert at the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York.
"The hard part for the court is drawing the boundary lines," she added, predicting a close vote among the justices. "I have no doubt it will be a 5-4 decision."
Despite the 1983 precedent, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled against the town. A district court had previously supported the town's position by dismissing the lawsuit filed by Galloway and Stephens.
The appeals court, in an opinion by Judge Guido Calabresi, cited another Supreme Court case from 1989, which he said, "suggested that legislative prayers invoking particular sectarian beliefs" could violate the Constitution.
Although the town did in theory allow anyone to volunteer, it "neither publicly solicited volunteers to invocation nor informed members of the general public that volunteers would be considered or accepted," Calabresi said.
He stressed that the court was not saying that government bodies can never open a session with prayer.
A total of 18 states and 49 members of the U.S. House of Representatives joined briefs asking the court to take the case.
The Alliance for Defending Freedom, a group that describes itself as an advocate for the rights of people to express their faith, is spearheading the town's legal fight.
The group's lawyers point out that the town has never regulated the content of prayers and did not discriminate in selecting prayer-givers.
"A few people should not be able to extinguish the traditions of our nation merely because they heard something they didn't like," Brett Harvey, one of the town's lawyers, said in a statement.
Galloway and Stephens have the support of another advocacy group, Americans United For Separation of Church and State.
Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the organization's executive director, said that a town council meeting "isn't a church service and it shouldn't seem like one."
Oral arguments and a decision are expected in the court's next term, which begins in October and ends in June 2014.
The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-696.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Howard Goller, Doina Chiacu and Cynthia Osterman)