Supreme Court Rules on Prayers Opening Legislative Meetings

May 15, 2014

On May 5, 2014, the United States Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway et al., ruling that legislative bodies, such as city councils, can begin their meetings with prayer. Specifically, the Court held that opening a town board meeting with a prayer offered by members of the clergy does not violate the Establishment Clause when the practice is consistent with the tradition long followed by Congress and state legislatures, when the town does not discriminate against minority faiths in determining who may offer a prayer, and when the prayer does not coerce participation with non-adherents.

Complaints in Greece, NY

The case involved the New York town of Greece, where the council regularly opened its meetings with a prayer delivered by someone from the community. The speakers were recruited from local houses of worship, which were predominantly Christian. Two attendees of the town meeting filed a complaint against Greece, stating that Christian themes pervaded the prayers, to the exclusion of citizens who did not share those beliefs. They alleged that the town violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by preferring Christians over other prayer givers and by sponsoring sectarian prayers, such as those given “in Jesus’ name.” The complainants requested an injunction from the United States District Court for the Western District of New York, which would limit the town to inclusive prayers that referred only to a “generic God” and would not associate the government with any one faith or belief.

District Court judge rules in favor of prayer

On summary judgment, the District Court upheld the town’s prayer practice as consistent with the First Amendment, finding no impermissible preference for Christianity. The District Court noted that the town’s prayer program was open to all creeds, stating further that the predominance of Christian prayer reflected the predominantly Christian identity of the town, rather than an official policy or practice of discriminating against minority faiths. Notably, the District Court also rejected the theory that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian.

The case is brought before the Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the District Court’s decision. It held that some aspects of the town’s prayer program, viewed in totality by a reasonable observer, conveyed the message that the town endorsed Christianity. The Court of Appeals found no inherent problem with the sectarian content of the prayers; rather, it concluded that the “steady drumbeat” of Christian prayer tended to affiliate the town with Christianity. The Court of Appeals also found that the invitation to participate in Christian prayer placed audience members that were not Christian in an awkward predicament. Notably, the Court of Appeals emphasized that it was the specific facts of the present case, rather than any single element, that rendered the prayer unconstitutional.

Supreme Court decides prayer is acceptable if town follows policy of non-discrimination

The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari and reversed the Court of Appeals decision. The Court cited Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, stating that the Marsh decision concluded that legislative prayer, while religious in nature, has long been understood as compatible with the Establishment Clause. The Court examined the history and tradition of legislative prayer, citing historical precedent for its acceptance. The Court stated that the “Nation’s history and tradition have shown that prayer in this limited context could ‘coexist’ with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.’” The Court also stated that mandating nonsectarian invocations would create greater censorship of religious speech than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance, nor criticizing their content after the fact. Additionally, the Court reasoned that so long as a city or 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. Ultimately, the Court held that 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 particular prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation.

For more information, please contact Yazan Ashrawi, Eugene Hollins, or any member of the Frost Brown Todd Government Services practice group.