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Supreme Court upholds prayer before local government board meetings

May 06, 2014

Today the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling in an important case regarding the constitutionality of prayer at town board meetings.  In Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, the Court held by a 5-4 margin that the town’s practice of inviting clergy from local congregations to give an opening prayer at board meetings did not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.  This was true even though most of the prayer givers were Christian and some of the prayers included overtly Christian terms and references.

The majority opinion first looked to the historical underpinnings of legislative prayer and its role from the nation’s early beginnings of lending gravity to the proceedings and expressing universal principles such as peace, justice and freedom.   It next determined that legislative prayer need not be generic or nonsectarian, as this could in effect require the legislative body to act as a supervisor or censor of religious speech, and it would be difficult if not impossible to reach a consensus on what is truly nonsectarian.  “Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permits 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.”   The fact that a prayer is given in the name of a particular religious figure or refers to particular religious doctrines does not remove it from the legislative prayer tradition, as prayer “that reflects beliefs specific to only some creeds can still serve to solemnize the occasion.”
 
While the majority concludes that invocations before town board meetings are not constitutionally required to be nonsectarian, the Court notes that there are still constraints on the practice of legislative prayer.  “Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing serves that legitimate function.  If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. “
 
The majority noted too that the town did not violate the constitution by inviting a predominantly Christian set of ministers to lead the prayer.  The facts showed that the town had made reasonable efforts to identify all religious congregations within its borders and had indicated that it would welcome prayer by any minister or layperson.  “So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.”
 
Here is a link to the opinion, which you may wish to share with your town attorney:  http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/12-696_4f57.pdf

Posted on May 06, 2014 by Cara Bridges