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Six Supreme Court Cases to Watch This Term


So a lot depends on how the Oklahoma Supreme Court proceeds. Should the Oklahoma Supreme Court hold that the Oklahoma statute is unconstitutional because it prohibits the use of Misoprostol and Methotrexate, this case could be over without the Supreme Court weighing in. But if the Oklahoma Supreme Court invalidates the law insofar as it prohibits alternative methods for administering RU-486, the Supreme Court will almost certainly take a look.

2. Town of Greece v. Galloway

The Roberts Court is set to weigh in on the issue of when, and how, government prayer practices can exist without violating the Establishment Clause's ban on the intermingling of church and state. In Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court upheld Nebraska's practice of opening each legislative session with a prayer, based largely on an unbroken tradition of that practice dating back to the framing of the Constitution. In Marsh, the Court adopted two apparent limits to a legislative prayer practice: The government may not select prayer-givers based on a discriminatory motive, and prayer opportunities may not be exploited to proselytize in favor of one religion or disparage another.

Prior to 1999, the town of Greece, New York, opened every legislative session with a moment of silence. Then, in 1999 and at the request of the town's supervisor, the town switched to opening its legislative sessions with a prayer. Nearly all of those prayers were delivered by Christian clergy members and, unlike other city councils, there was no requirement that the prayers be inclusive or non-denominational. City officials selected speakers off a list of local religious leaders provided by the Greece Chamber of Commerce. From 1999 through 2007, Christians delivered every single invocation prayer, in part because the list provided by the area Chamber of Commerce included only Christian religious officials despite the fact that other denominations exist in the community.

The practice was challenged by a group of citizens who argued it violated the Establishment Clause. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit acknowledged that the Town of Greece had not violated either of Marsh’s limits in its practices, but still invalidated the town's practices. Applying the "reasonable observer" standard drawn from County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, the court concluded that a reasonable observer would view the town as endorsing Christianity over other religions, because its process of composing a list of prayer-givers from clergy within its geographic boundaries and volunteers virtually guaranteed the person delivering the prayer would be a Christian, because most of the prayers contained uniquely Christian references, and because prayer-givers invited participation and town officials participated in the prayers.

The reasonable observer test appears headed for a fall. In County of Alleghany, Justice Kennedy in his dissent criticized the reasonable observer test as insensitive to traditions and unworkable for governments and courts to apply. He argued that religious accommodations are consistent with the Establishment Clause as long as they do not coerce attendance at, or participation in, a religious observance, or directly fund religion. Justice Kennedy's perspective is an important one. To begin with, the makeup of the Court is different now than the last time it considered these issues. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has been replaced by Justice Samuel Alito, for example, and the Court has veered hard to the right. It is conceivable then that the Court could view this case as an opportunity to abandon, or at least reconsider and revise, the reasonable observer test. If so, the decision could affect not only the constitutionality of legislative prayers, but also all religious accommodations, including the public display of religious symbols. It could also offer a glimpse into the Court's thinking on another religious accommodation likely to come before it this term: the challenges under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to the contraception benefit in the Affordable Care Act.