WASHINGTON – Government entities from school boards on up can now comfortably open their public sessions with a prayer if they choose in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday that the Town Board in Greece, Monroe County, didn’t violate the Constitution by starting its meetings with words from a “chaplain of the month.”
In a 5-4 decision that pitted the court’s conservative majority against its liberals, the high court said the Town Board’s practice of starting with a prayer was fully constitutional because it didn’t exclude any religion from offering up a chaplain to speak at the start of the meetings.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said that such ceremonial prayers have a long tradition throughout American government, even at the Supreme Court, which begins each of its sessions with the marshal of the court saying, “God save the United States and this honorable court.”
As for the Town of Greece’s tradition of having rotating chaplains speak at the opening of each board session, Kennedy wrote: “The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.”
Writing in dissent for the court’s liberal minority, Justice Elena Kagan begged to differ, saying that the Town of Greece’s practice subjects nonreligious members of the community to the message that the town supports religion.
“Greece’s town meetings involve participation by ordinary citizens, and the invocations given – directly to those citizens – were predominantly sectarian in content,” Kagan wrote.
Supporters and critics of the ruling agreed on one thing, however: The court decision makes it clear that government entities have a clear constitutional right to include ceremonial prayers in their proceedings.
“Opening public meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution themselves practiced,” said David A. Cortman, senior counsel for Americans Defending Freedom, a Christian legal defense fund that represented Greece in the case. “Speech censors should have no power to silence volunteers who pray for their communities just as the Founders did.”
Yet the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said nonbelievers and those of less prominent faiths will feel silenced.
“The Supreme Court just relegated millions of Americans – both believers and nonbelievers – to second-class citizenship,” Lynn said. “Government should not be in the business of forcing faith on anyone, and now all who attend meetings of their local boards could be subjected to the religion of the majority.”
Monday’s ruling follows in the footsteps of a 1983 decision by the Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of the prayer that opens each session of the State Legislature in Nebraska.
The high court’s stance on such issues seemed muddied somewhat, though, by a 1992 ruling that Kennedy authored saying that a Christian prayer before a high school graduation was unconstitutional. Kennedy delineated between the two rulings Monday by highlighting two differences between them: the age of the audience and the fact the graduating class could not leave the room the way people at a Town Board meeting could if they didn’t like the prayer they were hearing.
“The 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 nonbelievers,” Kennedy wrote.
But Kagan, in her dissent, noted that there was a troubling consistency to the types of religious leaders invited to speak to the Town Board. From 1999 to 2007, every invocation was delivered by a Christian, and after that – and even after two town residents sued to try to stop the practice – the opening prayers were almost exclusively Christian.
“So month in and month out for over a decade, prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits,” wrote Kagan, one of the court’s three Jewish justices. The others – Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen G. Breyer – joined Kagan in her dissent, as did Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was raised Catholic.
The two Greece residents who sued the town over the prayers – Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, who is an atheist – lost the first round of their case before the U.S. Court for the Western District of New York in Rochester.
The Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City reversed that ruling, saying the town’s actions made it appear that it was endorsing Christianity.
Kennedy and the rest of the high court’s majority disagreed, even though some of the invocations delivered at the Greece Town Board meeting were explicitly Christian, referring, in one case, to “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.”
The court could not force invocations to be nonsectarian, Kennedy said, because doing so “would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.”
Kennedy’s opinion won widespread praise from religious groups, including the New York Catholic Conference, which represents the state’s bishops.
“We do not owe our thanks to government for our rights; the Constitution was and is merely a written and interpreted expression of the rights already granted us by God,” said Richard E. Barnes, executive director of the Catholic Conference. “Our uniquely American public ceremonial prayer is a recognition of these ‘self-evident’ truths, and those who seek to undermine this practice do so, unwittingly perhaps, but systematically and steadily, at the peril of the Republic.”
Stephens said she sees things very differently.
“Government is supposed to represent everyone, not just those who believe in God,” she said. “I worry that this decision by the Supreme Court will leave minorities and nonbelievers feeling persecuted.”
News Albany Bureau Chief Tom Precious contributed to this report. email: firstname.lastname@example.org