Supreme Court puts wings on public prayers

In a ruling that allows public prayers before a town meeting, the Supreme Court points to their spiritual purpose in guiding lawmakers while also setting down constitutional bumpers against an abuse of public prayer.

Tom Lynch delivers a Baha'i prayer last year before the start of a board meeting at the Greece Town Hall in Greece, New York.

Speaking a public prayer before certain government meetings can serve many purposes, the US Supreme Court ruled Monday. But the main purpose should be largely to “accommodate the spiritual needs of lawmakers,” a majority of justices decided.

The judicial ruling is not a slap at the legislative branch over its occasional character flaws. After all, the high court itself opens its sessions with “God save the United States and this honorable Court.” Rather the ruling strikes a balance by recognizing public prayer as a force for good in a few settings while restraining its use to avoid official coercion or disparagement of any particular faith. 

The decision lets stand a practice by the town council of Greece, N.Y., to welcome local members of all faiths, and atheists, to offer an invocation at the opening of each meeting. The court found the town did not discriminate among local clergy or force anyone to listen to a prayer before starting town business. Nonbelievers could leave the room or quietly disagree without being judged. And the town wisely did not try to censor such religious speech by, for example, insisting prayers refer only to a “generic God.”

The ruling sets forth a few new constitutional bumpers on the use of public prayers while acknowledging their historical and beneficial role, dating back to a prayer given at the opening of the First Continental Congress in 1774 that helped unite the 13 Colonies.

“To be sure, many members of the public find these prayers meaningful and wish to join them,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority. “But their purpose is largely to accommodate the spiritual needs of lawmakers and connect them to a tradition dating to the time of the Framers. For members of town boards and commissions, who often serve part-time and as volunteers, ceremonial prayer may also reflect the values they hold as private citizens. The prayer is an opportunity for them to show who and what they are without denying the right to dissent by those who disagree.”

Prayers before an opening of government business provide “gravity” and solemnity to public service, Justice Kennedy stated. They evoke universal values such as peace, wisdom, and justice that are rooted in both religion and the nation’s founding documents and laws.

But their main value is to invite “lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends” before starting the fractious business of governing. A prayer helps create a moment of quiet reflection that sets a legislator’s thinking “to a higher purpose and thereby eases the task of governing.”

Adult citizens of any faith or no faith can tolerate such public prayers without demanding strict neutrality by elected leaders. The ruling acknowledges that a listener at a public meeting might be offended by a particular prayer. But offense “does not equate to coercion” in such limited circumstances.

Looking forward, government officials must use this ruling with care. Prayer before an official body must be kept within legal bounds. But as the court finds, public prayer helps “many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond that authority of government to alter or define.”

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