May 5, 2014

Supreme Court affirms town council’s right to prayer

The Supreme Court brought some clarity to the role of prayer in civic life today by reaffirming that prayer before legislative bodies is not only constitutional, but that it can contain Christian and other faith-specific language. At the same time, today’s 5-4 ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway largely upheld existing case law rather than significantly breaking new ground.

The high court said that it does not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause to begin a legislative body’s meeting or session with a prayer, even one that uses explicit Christian or other religious language. The allowance of prayer that includes language specific to a particular religious tradition builds on a 1983 Supreme Court ruling, Marsh v. Chambers, which first found legislative prayer to be constitutional. 

As it did in Marsh, the court in Town of Greece reaffirmed that prayers that denigrate other faiths or aggressively promote a particular religion are not permissible. However, the decision today also makes clear that courts should intervene only when plaintiffs can show a pattern of impermissible prayers. A single prayer that promotes or denigrates a particular faith does not in itself violate the Establishment Clause, according to the decision.

The plaintiffs in Town of Greece challenged a New York municipality’s practice of beginning each local board meeting with a prayer. Two citizens argued that these prayers violate the Establishment Clause, in part because the invocations have been largely Christian.

The town countered that its practice does not violate the Establishment Clause because the opportunity to offer a prayer was made available to residents of all faiths. Greece also argued that its policy fits squarely into the parameters set by the Supreme Court in the Marsh decision, which ruled legislative prayer constitutional – in large part because the practice dates back to the founding of the republic and is embedded in the country’s history and tradition.

In today’s decision, the high court agreed with Greece’s town board that the Christian nature of many of the prayers does not constitutionally invalidate them. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that “to hold that invocations must be nonsectarian 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.”

Topics: Christians and Christianity, Religion and Government, Religion and Society, Religious Beliefs and Practices

  1. Photo of David Masci

    is a Senior Researcher at the Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project.

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1 Comment

  1. william renán4 months ago

    Pienso que las oraciones, como las restantes manifestaciones de religiosidad no deben trascender de la esfera privada, tal como lo ha decretado el Estado francés, independientemente de cual sea la fe. En Colombia un Procurador General hace militancia política y religiosa activa desde la trinchera de su fe. El uso público, o la permisividad “compulsiva” de prácticas o actividades religiosas contraviene elementos de la libertad de cultos como derecho fundamental, q ante todo dota de autonomía infranqueable la decisión de adoptar alguna fe en específico, como lo explicaron en su momento George Jellinek y Karl Loewenstein. Gracias

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