WASHINGTON — Oklahoma's Legislature, like most in the country, starts its daily sessions with a prayer. It is common practice for many local governments as well.
And, despite all of the controversies over prayer in school and at various activities, legislative prayer appeared to be almost immune from constitutional challenge because of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion in 1983 that cited the “long history of legislative prayer in Congress.”
Now, however, the issue is back before the Supreme Court because of a lawsuit filed against the town of Greece, N.Y., challenging the opening prayers at Town Board meetings.
Though the town allows volunteers and invites clergy from all faiths to give the prayers, two residents complained that the prayers were dominated by Christian content. A federal judge ruled for the town, but a federal appeals court reversed, ruling that the town's practice endorsed a particular religion.
The town of Greece now is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case. A decision is expected to be announced by the court soon.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt has joined a brief with 17 colleagues urging the court to grant the town's petition. The attorneys general argue that appeals courts have begun to rule on legislative prayers using various approaches and that the U.S. Supreme Court should clarify the matter.
“States with legislative prayer practices already in place may even consider abandoning those traditions in order to avoid costly and burdensome litigation,” the attorneys general told the court.
“In fact, the Hawaii Senate recently did just that ... thus becoming the first state legislative body in the nation to halt the practice of legislative prayer.”
Rep. James Lankford, R-Oklahoma City, joined a brief filed by 49 members of Congress also urging the court to take the case.
About 97 percent of the prayers opening Congress are given by Christians, the members of Congress said in their brief, and would be unconstitutional under the test used by the appeals court in the Greece case.“Unless Congress has been violating the Constitution since its ratification, the (appeals court) test is error,” the members' brief says.
GAO asks update
of death record
Most U.S. citizens eventually will wind up on a list kept by the Social Security Administration with the morbid name of the Death Master File. And that will be a good thing, for taxpayers anyway, because it means a range of federal benefits won't be sent to the deceased.
The Government Accountability Office is now looking at whether Social Security has a sound system for adding names. Such review is warranted, the agency noted, because the U.S. government made an estimated $108 billion last year in improper payments — that's overpayment and underpayments across a range of programs.
The preliminary news about the Death Master File isn't all good.
The GAO — Congress' auditing arm — told a Senate Committee last week that the Social Security Administration doesn't verify all of the death reports it receives so it “risks having erroneous death information in the DMF, such as including living individuals in the file or not including deceased individuals.
“Specifically, for death reports that are not verified, SSA would not know with certainty if the individuals reported as dead are, in fact, the ones who are dead. SSA acknowledges these limitations and does not guarantee the accuracy of the file.”
Several other federal departments use the file to check against pension or health care benefits.
There is also a “partial” Death Master File used by many other government agencies, but that file has 10 percent fewer records — 87 million of the 98 million in the full DMF. As a result, the GAO said, “any benefit-paying agency relying on the partial DMF to help identify deceased program participants may be missing death records for some of its beneficiaries.”
In examining some of the records in the DMF, the GAO found:
• 1,295 records where the recorded age at death was between 111 and 129; and
• 1,791 records where the recorded death preceded 1936, the year Social Security numbers were first issued, although the decedents had Social Security numbers assigned to them.