Nightly News   |  November 06, 2013

SCOTUS liberals question prayers at legislative meetings

Cities and town have opened public meetings with prayers for hundreds of years, but two residents in the town of Greece, N.Y., have sued, saying the prayers that open their town board meetings are unconstitutional. NBC’s Pete Williams reports.

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>>> good evening. it's plainly visible right there on the currency we use every day. it says "in god we trust," but even before the this nation was a nation the founders puzzled over a dilemma that's emotional today. how much separation should there be or must there be between the gov government and religion. that was front and center today at the u.s. supreme court and a case involving something that also happens in this country every day -- prayers said in public at things like town meetings . our justice correspondent pete williams at the court for us tonight. pete, good evening.

>> reporter: brian, good evening. nearly every government body in america opens its meetingses with a prayer. the question for the justices, when does it go too far the and violate the separation of church and state ?

>> lord, thank you for gathering us here this evening.

>> reporter: it's the way cities and towns have opened public meetings for hundreds of yearses in a country with god on its currency. something like a prayer bring it is the supreme court to order.

>> god save the united states and this honorable court.

>> reporter: but justice kagan said suppose a minister talked about the sacrifice of jesus christ on the cross. would that be permissible. one jewish and one athiest sued saying prayers, nearly always christian, are an unconstitutional government endorsement of a single faith.

>> we ask all these things in your holy name . amen.

>> i don't think you should have to endure religious indoctrination in order to participate in your own town government.

>> reporter: but the town says it has history on its side.

>> we have a rich tradition back to our founding fathers of opening legislative meetings with prayerment.

>> reporter: several of the supreme court 's liberals questioned the practice saying those who attend a town board meeting to ask for something may feel compelled to join a prayer. just as justice sotomayor side wouldn't they feel coerced? but from paid chaplains, a practice the supreme court endorsed 30 years ago spl eternal god , how great you are.

>> reporter: justice briar suggested that the court could draw up rules to make local prayers more inclusive like those in congress to all faiths. justice samuel elito said i don't know how it is possible to compose anything that you could call a prayer that is acceptable to all these groups. a majority of the justices seem willing to let government-led prayer continue without new limits based on not much more than the fact that it's been done since the nation's founding. brian?

>> pete williams starting us off at the supreme court tonight. thanks.