INDIANAPOLIS | It's often said that politics makes strange bedfellows, and it doesn't get much stranger than the powers coming together defending the ability of governments to open their meetings with prayer.
The Obama administration has joined a chorus of 23 mostly Republican state attorneys general, including Indiana's Greg Zoeller, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn an appellate court ruling that prohibited a New York town from beginning its monthly council meetings with a consistently Christian prayer.
The Democratic president argues in his recently filed amicus brief, also known as a friend-of-the-court brief, that the tradition of American federal, state and local governments starting their meetings with prayer predates even the Declaration of Independence.
It deserves to continue so long as the prayer does not advance or demean a particular religion, he says.
"The historical purpose of providing such an opportunity is not to provide a forum for private prayer; it is to solemnize the body's proceedings and seek divine guidance for the body's deliberations," writes Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., in the president's brief.
That argument is similar to Zoeller's separate amicus filing on behalf of the attorneys general, which urges the nine justices not only to explicitly permit prayer at government meetings but also to set a new, definitive standard allowing most religious activities in the public square.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May 2012 that regularly starting a government meeting with a Christian prayer suggests an "official affiliation with a particular religion," in violation of the U.S. Constitution's ban on the establishment of a state religion.
The Supreme Court agreed in May to hear the government-prayer case during its term that begins in October. A ruling is expected by June 2014.
Just more than a year ago, Zoeller helped lead an unsuccessful state-driven attempt to persuade the high court to strike down the 2010 Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare.