U.S. Supreme Court Allows Sectarian Prayers at Government Meetings

Wednesday, May 07, 2014
Greece council members pray at town board meeting (photo: Fox News)

In a controversial decision reflecting the conservative-liberal divide that has dominated American political discourse in this young century, the U.S. Supreme Court has sanctioned the practice of prayer, particularly Christian ones, before local government meetings.


The 5-4 ruling (pdf) upheld opening prayers before the town board of Greece, New York, which has mostly invited Christian religious leaders to offer invocations for the past 15 years. Two local residents, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, objected to the practice and filed suit in 2008, arguing the overt sectarian nature of the prayers constituted a violation of the First Amendment, which bars the government from giving preference to a specific religion.


But Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, said the upstate New York town had not violated the Constitution.


“From the earliest days of the nation, these invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds,” Kennedy wrote. “These ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion. Even those who disagree as to religious doctrine may find common ground in the desire to show respect for the divine in all aspects of their lives and being. 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.”


He acknowledged that some may “feel excluded or disrespected” by the religious invocations, and to those people his advice was to simply ignore it. After all, he said, “adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable.”


Kennedy further argued that even though a “number of the prayers did invoke the name of Jesus, the Heavenly Father, or the Holy Spirit,” they also “invoked universal themes, as by celebrating the changing of the seasons or calling for a ‘spirit of cooperation’ among town leaders.”


Joined by the court’s chief justice, John Roberts, and Justices Antonin Scalia, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas, Kennedy insisted the actions in Greece did not fall outside the legal bounds of a court precedent in March v. Chambers. In that 1983 decision, the court approved prayers before the beginning of the Nebraska legislature, claiming such ceremonies were “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”


The court’s liberal wing, led by Justice Elena Kagan, disagreed with the majority’s assertion that Greece’s predominantly Christian prayers did not violate “the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.”


Writing for Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, Kagan added that if prayer is to take place, officials must ensure that they “are inclusive of different faiths, rather than always identified with a single religion.”


“No one can fairly read the prayers from Greece’s town meetings as anything other than explicitly Christian — constantly and exclusively so,” she pointed out. The clergy conducting the prayers at the Greece meetings “put some residents to the unenviable choice of either pretending to pray like the majority or declining to join its communal activity, at the very moment of petitioning their elected leaders.”


Kagan also referenced the nation’s Founding Fathers, writing in a footnote that George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wanted separation between sectarian language and public life. “The demand for neutrality among religions is not a product of 21st century ‘political correctness,’” she wrote, “but of the 18th century view.”


Justice Alito took a shot at the dissenting justices, calling their words “really quite niggling.” Kagan responded that her colleague’s comment “says all there is to say about the difference between our respective views.”


All five justices who formed the majority opinion are Roman Catholic. The dissenters include three Jews and one Catholic.


Some legal experts, like professor Erwin Chemerinsky at the University of California, Irvine School of Law, who filed a brief opposing the Greece prayers, said the ruling “certainly reflects five justices who want to allow much more of a religious presence in government and government support for religion.”


Both Democratic and Republican politicians had supported the town of Greece in this case, as well as the Obama administration, whose Justice Department filed a brief in support of the town meeting’s Christian prayers.


Liberal writer Paul Waldman says the decision was about more than the separation of church and state. The ruling, he wrote in The Washington Post, “is about the privilege of the majority, the privilege to define your own beliefs, traditions, and practices as simply the water in which we all swim. If you’re in that majority, you tend to be shocked when anyone even questions whether those practices ought to be imposed on everyone and sponsored by the state.”


“If I were a minister and I got asked to offer a prayer in a context like a city council meeting, I would offer a nonsectarian one, precisely because there might be people of different faiths, or people who don’t believe in any deity, participating,” added Waldman. “I’d want it to be an opportunity for unity and inclusion, not exclusion. The city council meeting wouldn’t be the appropriate place for proselytizing, whether the Supreme Court says it’s legal or not. Context matters, and treating other people with respect — as though your perspective is not the only one that counts — would demand it. But most people don’t seem to feel this way — so long as they’re in the majority.”


It is anticipated that the court’s decision may have a ripple effect, influencing legal decisions in a variety of cases involving public and government-sponsored displays of religion. Indeed, the first effect was immediate: A federal judge in Baltimore cited the Supreme Court’s decision in lifting an injunction against religious invocations at commission meetings in Carroll County, Maryland. Until now, the injunction had barred citing “the name of a specific deity associated with any one specific faith or belief in prayers given at board meetings.”


“I think this is a green light to local majorities to impose their religious practices on any citizen who seeks to participate in civic affairs,” University of Virginia law professor Doublas Laycock, the plaintiffs’ lawyer, told The Wall Street Journal. “It’s not an absolutely blanket approval, but it goes awfully far.”


Waldman wondered how the conservative justices or those supporting the ruling would react if the residents of Dearborn, Michigan, which has a sizeable Muslim community, decided to begin each city council meeting with “a prayer by an imam, or with cheerleaders at the high school making banners with praise for Allah? In other words, how would they feel about religion getting entwined with government if it weren’t their religion?” he wrote.

-Noel Brinkerhoff, Danny Biederman


To Learn More:

Town Meetings Can Have Prayer, Justices Decide (by Adam Liptak, New York Times)

N.Y. Community's Prayer Upheld by Justices (by Barbara Leonard, Courthouse News Service)

Supreme Court Gets it Wrong on State-Sponsored Religion (by Paul Waldman, Washington Post)

U.S. Supreme Court Backs Prayer Before Government Meetings (by Lawrence Hurley, Reuters)

Supreme Court Permits Prayer at Greece, N.Y., Board Meetings (by Jess Bravin, Wall Street Journal)

Ruling: Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway et al. (U.S. Supreme Court) (pdf)

Christian Prayers at City Council Meetings Supported by Obama Administration before Supreme Court (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


Leave a comment