DC Notes: Legislative Prayer and Death Files

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt is among those urging the U.S. Supreme Court to clarify the rules for prayers that begin meetings of state Legislatures and city councils
by Chris Casteel Published: May 12, 2013
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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.

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by Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. After covering the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City, he moved to Washington in 1990, where...
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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: • 130 records where the date of death was recorded to occur before the date of birth;

• 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.

Chris Casteel,

Washington Bureau

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