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August 1, 2013

N.Y. town prayers at issue as Supreme Court takes up religion for 1st time in 30 years

On a sultry July evening, Supervisor John Auberger began the Greece, N.Y., town board meeting in his usual way: He invited a Christian minister to seek God's blessing.

"Would you bow your heads with me as I pray?" Nathan Miller of Northridge Church asked the audience. Auberger and 14 other officials on the dais listened silently as Miller asked God to guide the meeting while invoking "your son, Jesus."

The town's solemn prayers are now the focus of a Supreme Court fight that may reshape the legal limits on religious expression at official functions nationwide. The case, a highlight of the nine-month term that starts in October, will mark the first time the court has considered legislative prayer since upholding the practice 30 years ago. Under Chief Justice John Roberts, the court has been receptive to efforts to bring religion into the public square.

Two residents of the Rochester suburb have waged a five- year campaign, arguing that the town is going beyond what the justices allowed in 1983, violating the Constitution by endorsing Christianity.

"Government should be inclusive," said Susan Galloway, 51, one of the women challenging the practice. "There are people who don't believe, and they're part of this country, too. We all have a right to be part of it and not feel excluded."

The dispute has turned bitter at times. Galloway and her friend Linda Stephens, a retired school librarian, say they have received anonymous letters warning them to "be careful." Stephens woke up one morning to discover someone had dug up her mailbox and placed it on top of her car.

The town rejects their complaint, arguing that it hasn't shut out members of other faiths. Officials say the opening prayer has been delivered by a Jewish man, a Bahai leader and a Wiccan priestess who invoked Apollo and Athena.

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