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Washington (AFP) – The U.S. Supreme Court was to consider Wednesday whether prayers can be recited before city hall meetings, a hot issue that addresses the principle of separation between church and state.

Demonstrators on both sides of the controversy were to gather on the steps of the stately building near the Capitol while the nine-judge panel discusses the constitutionality of such prayer, in particular whether it amounts in essence to recruiting by Christians.

In the town of Greece in New York state, local clergy are invited to come and say a prayer each month at the start of each city council meeting.

Two locals have protested. They say such prayer is unconstitutional and has no place in a political forum.

They are represented by an organization of Americans that pushes for separation of church and state.

One of them, Linda Stephens, is an atheist. The other, Susan Galloway, says that if prayers are said, they should be non-denominational.

Between 1999 and 2007, all the prayers were Christian. Since the women filed their first complaint in 2008, some prayers were recited by a lay Jewish person, a Wiccan priestess, and the president of a Bahai congregation.

The court, composed of six Catholic judges and three Jewish ones, must decide if the practice violates the first amendment to the U.S. constitution, which says Congress must not pass any law that grants an institutional status to a religion.

Under the 14th amendment the clause is applied to the federal government but also to local administrations.

An appeals court ruled that prayers at the Greece town hall meetings are unconstitutional.

The city appealed to the Supreme Court, saying followers of any religion can propose a prayer.

“It is our hope that the town of Greece will prevail before the U.S. Supreme Court in this case, and a victory for them will be a victory for all Americans of faith and for the constitution itself,” said Ken Klukowski, Director of the Center for Religious Liberty at the Family Research Council.

He said it was likely the court, which as a conservative majority, will “significantly strengthen the religious liberty rights of Americans in public life and the public square.”

The Secular Coalition for America, which plans to demonstrate outside the court, said it is “unconscionable that in a country founded on the separation of religion and government, any citizen would be coerced into prayer while trying to participate in the civic process.”

A decision by the court will be announced in June at the latest.

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