Prayer Before Government Meetings Upheld As Nation’s Tradition
The long-awaited ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway has finally arrived after seven years of litigation and six months after oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court. A 5 – 4 divided Court upheld the offering of prayer to open government meetings. The court focused on the history and tradition of legislative prayer dating back centuries.
After years of solely Christian prayers being offered to open town meetings in Rochester, NY, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens filed the lawsuit against the town board alleging the prayers were unconstitutional. They alleged that the prayers aligned the town with only one religion and pressured all in attendance to participate.
The Court had previously upheld legislative prayers, most recently in 1983 in the case of Marsh v. Chambers. The Marsh Court upheld an opening prayer in the Nebraska Legislature saying that prayer is part of the nation’s fabric. The difference in the Town of Greece case was that the prayers were given by mostly Christian clergy, the content was predominantly sectarian, and it was before an audience that typically included average citizens with business to conduct.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, held that opening local government meetings with prayers does not violate the Establishment Clause as long as no religion is promoted or disparaged, and citizens are not coerced to participate. Kennedy’s opinion focused on the long-standing tradition of legislative prayer in our nation. He reasoned that having government officials act as censors of religious speech or declaring all prayer as unconstitutional is an unacceptable alternative.
“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.” He further stated “[t]he inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce non-believers.” Kennedy was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
The principal dissent was written by Justice Elena Kagan, who focused on the participation of ordinary citizens and the dominance of Christian clergy providing the prayers placed the practice outside the Constitution. “When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another,” Kagan said. Kagan was joined in the dissent by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
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Preamble to the Bill of Rights
Congress of the United States begun and held at the City of New-York, on Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.