Supreme Court: Constitution allows for public prayer at town meetings (+video)

Ceremonial prayer before a legislative session, as practiced by Greece, N.Y., does not amount to an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity, the US Supreme Court ruled Monday.

By , Staff writer

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    Rev. Dr. Rob Schenck, of Faith and Action (r.), prays in front of the Supreme Court with Raymond Moore (c.) and Patty Bills, both also of Faith and Action, during a news conference, Monday, May 5, 2014, in Washington, after speaking in favor of the ruling by the court's conservative majority that was a victory for the town of Greece, N.Y., outside of Rochester.
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The US Supreme Court ruled on Monday that a small town in upstate New York can continue to open its town meetings with a prayer, citing an American tradition of similar religious invocations.

The case posed an important question about the scope of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and the so-called wall of separation dividing church and state.

In a 5-to-4 decision, the high court said the Town of Greece did not violate the First Amendment’s prohibition of establishment of a government-favored religion when it authorized community members to deliver invocations prior to the start of its monthly meetings.

Recommended: How much do you know about the US Constitution? A quiz.

Two residents complained that the invocations were too explicitly doctrinal and Christian, and made them feel coerced into participating in religious worship.

In rejecting those complaints, the majority justices said a ceremonial prayer offered at the beginning of legislative sessions did not amount to an unconstitutional government endorsement of Christianity or of religion in general.

“From the earliest days of the Nation, these invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “These ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion.”

He added: “Our tradition assumes that adult citizens firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.”

“The prayers delivered in the Town of Greece do not fall outside the tradition this Court has recognized,” Justice Kennedy said.

He noted that the First Congress provided for the appointment of chaplains a few days after approving the language of the First Amendment. That historic fact, Kennedy said, “demonstrates that the Framers considered legislative prayer a benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.”

In a dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said meetings conducted by the Town of Greece were fundamentally different than purely legislative sessions.

Town officials interact with citizens and decide whether to approve or deny requests for government action. If an opening prayer is to be delivered, it should be inclusive of all faiths, rather than explicitly sectarian, she said.

Instead, she said, the town overwhelmingly hosted Christian prayers at its meetings, sending a resounding message of endorsement of Christianity to the exclusion of other faiths.

“In this country, when citizens go before the government, they go not as Christians or Muslims, or Jews (or what have you), but just as Americans,” she said.

“That is what it means to be an equal citizen, irrespective of religion,” she wrote. “And that is what the Town of Greece precluded by so identifying itself with a single faith.”

Residents seeking board approval of some project or request might feel pressure to participate in the prayer out of fear that they would offend board members and sour their chances by remaining seated or leaving the room, she said.

She said the message of the Supreme Court majority’s opinion was "What’s the big deal, anyway?"

“The context of Greece’s prayers is a big deal, to Christians and non-Christians alike,” she said.

Such prayers offered in a legislative body are for the benefit of the lawmakers, Kagan said, while the prayers in Greece were presented to the residents attending meeting who have no choice in the matter. Such forced prayer is not part of the nation’s heritage and tradition, she said.

“They express beliefs that are fundamental to some, foreign to others – and because that is so they carry the ever-present potential to both exclude and divide,” she wrote.

“The majority, I think, assesses too lightly the significance of these religious differences, and so fears too little the religiously based divisiveness that the Establishment Clause seeks to avoid,” Kagan said.

Advocates on both sides of the issue reacted strongly to the decision.

“The Supreme Court just relegated millions of Americans – both believers and nonbelievers – to second-class citizenship,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“Government should not be in the business of forcing faith on anyone, and now all who attend meetings of their local boards could be subjected to the religion of the majority,” he said in a statement.

Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty praised the high court majority for echoing the “wisdom of the Founders.”

“As a people we will always have disagreements about religion,” Mr. Rassbach said in a statement. “But that reality cannot be used as an excuse to banish religious activity entirely from public life. The Founders recognized that prayer is not a trivial matter, but plays a central role in the life of our nation.”

He added: “All the court did today is repeat what the Founders said so many years ago.”

The Town of Greece is a small suburb of Rochester, N.Y. The local government is a five-member Town Board led by the town supervisor.

In 1999, the supervisor decided to start inviting members of the local clergy to present a prayer at the start of the board’s monthly meetings. Some of the prayers were oriented toward a particular faith and virtually all of the prayers were Christian. Many referred to Jesus and included references to “we” and “us,” suggesting that all persons present shared the same beliefs.  

After the board received complaints, a few non-Christians were invited to present invocations at the board meetings, including a Wiccan priestess, a lay Jewish man, and a representative from a local Baha’i group.

Two residents, Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway, complained about the invocations and filed suit in 2008. Ms. Stephens is an atheist and objected to any prayer at the town meetings. Ms. Galloway also objected to the prayers, but she also argued that if prayers were to be offered they should not be overtly sectarian.

A federal judge ruled in favor of the town, but a panel of the Second US Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the complaining town residents.

The appeals court said the town’s practice of inviting primarily Christian adherents to the meeting to conduct invocations had the effect of establishing a government-backed religion. The court determined that a reasonably objective observer of the meetings and the prayers would view it as an endorsement of Christianity by the Town Board.

In reversing that decision, Justice Kennedy said the appeals court erred in concluding that the town violated the Constitution by inviting primarily Christian ministers to deliver the opening invocations.

Kennedy said the town made reasonable efforts to reach out to other religious groups within its borders and communicated that it would welcome a prayer by any religious adherent who wished to deliver one.

“That nearly all the congregations in town turned out to be Christian does not reflect an aversion or bias on the part of town leaders against minority faiths,” Kennedy said.

He rejected suggestions that town officials be required to pursue a diversity of religious perspectives in their prayer invocations. That would engender a far more troublesome entanglement of government with religion than the town’s current prayer policy, he said.

The majority also rejected the suggestion that prayers offered before town meetings should be nonsectarian to avoid offending those of other faiths.

“The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech,” Kennedy said. “Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian.”

Kennedy went on to stress that such invocations were not without constraint. Public prayers must be “solemn and respectful in tone” and aimed at inviting lawmakers to “reflect on shared ideals and common ends.”

He warned that prayers might cross a constitutional line if the invocations “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion.”

But overall, the majority’s approach was permissive.

“Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation,” Kennedy wrote.

Joining the majority opinion were Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.

Justice Kagan’s dissent was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.

The case was Town of Greece v. Galloway (12-696). 

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