BJC uses litigation as a tool for First Amendment rights


The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, our second-quarter Challenge the Gap beneficiary, works to both protect the free exercise of religion and to support the institutional separation of church and state. To this end, Baptist Joint Committee Office of the General Counsel advocates for religious liberty through its involvement in church-state litigation. BJC files amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) briefs in any U.S. Supreme Court case dealing with religious liberty and decides their involvement in other lawsuits on a case-by-case basis. One recent U.S. Supreme Court case BJC participated in was Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014).

Town of Greece v. Gallowaybrought the issue of legislative prayer before the Supreme Court for the first time in three decades. The case involved the Greece, NY Town Board’s practice of opening official meetings with prayers by local clergy. Two residents – one atheist, another Jewish – sued the town, claiming that the practice was an infringement on their religious liberty rights and violated the First Amendment’s prohibition on government establishment of religion. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found that a substantial majority of the prayers between 1999 and 2010 “contained uniquely Christian language” and ruled that the prayer practice was an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The issue of legislative prayer was previously addressed by the Supreme Court in Marsh v. Chambers (1983). In that case, the Court upheld the Nebraska legislature’s practice of opening with a prayer offered by a state-employed chaplain.

In November 2013, the Supreme Court heard arguments for Town of Greece v. Galloway. An amicus curiae brief was filed by BJC and joined by the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In it, BJC opposed the practice of legislative prayer, saying the practice violates the conscience of those who have to be in attendance to participate in the meeting.

In May 2014, with a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling. The Court based their decision on historical precedent, with Greece’s particular prayer practice considered to be no different than the tradition of chaplain-led prayers before Congress and state legislatures. The BJC’s brief was later cited in Justice Elena Kagan’s dissent.

Although BJC’s efforts in this case did not result in a clear-cut victory, they did act in a manner that befits the mission of their organization, which “champions the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government.” Foundation Beyond Belief is proud to support BJC as they continue to fight for religious liberty for all.

You can follow Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty’s efforts and activities through their website, Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.