Supreme Court Upholds Prayers at Municipal Meetings

By Mark Walsh — May 05, 2014 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In a case being watched by school boards, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Monday to uphold prayers before a town’s meetings in New York state despite the predominantly Christian and sometimes proselytizing nature of the prayers.

“The town of Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority.

Objectors to the prayers in the small New York state town were not seeking to end the practice altogether but were trying to encourage more ecumenical prayers and more religious variety.

Kennedy said the case was governed by the high court’s 1983 decision in Marsh v. Chambers, which upheld prayers delivered before the Nebraska legislature.

“An insistence on nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer outlined in the court’s cases,” Kennedy said in Town of Greece v. Galloway (Case No. 12-696).

“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,” Kennedy continued.

Kennedy’s opinion was joined in full by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. and in large part by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Kennedy’s reference to “adult citizens” should give education law experts much to chew about over whether the court would treat school board meetings the same as town councils and other municipal meetings. Some federal appeals courts that have addressed meeting prayers at school board meetings have distinguished that situation from Marsh by suggesting board meetings were more like school itself, with frequent presence of schoolchildren in a coercive environment.

In a part of his opinion not joined by Scalia and Thomas, Kennedy said that town-meeting prayers do not present the potential for coercion the court found problematic in Lee v. Weisman, the 1992 decision written by Kennedy that barred clergy-led prayers at school graduation ceremonies.

“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 said.

There was much in the record of the Town of Greece case to suggest that students were a frequent presence at the town council meetings, a fact noted in the principal dissent by Justice Elena Kagan.

She noted that at a typical town meeting in Greece, among the citizens present will be a few “children or teenagers, present to receive an award or fulfill a high school civics requirement.”

“I believe that pluralism and inclusion in a town hall can satisfy the constitutional requirement of neutrality, [and] such a forum need not become a religion-free zone,” Kagan said in her dissent, which was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.

“But still, the town of Greece should lose this case. The practice at issue here differs from the one sustained in Marsh because Greece’s town meetings involve participation by ordinary citizens, and the invocations given—directly to those citizens—were predominantly sectarian in content.”

In early reaction to the decision, David Cortman, a senior counsel with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale, Ariz., legal organization that represented the town before the justices, said: “The Supreme Court has again affirmed that Americans are free to pray. In America, we tolerate a diversity of opinions and beliefs; we don’t silence people or try to separate what they say from what they believe. Opening public meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution themselves practiced. Speech censors should have no power to silence volunteers who pray for their communities just as the Founders did.”

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which sponsored the lawsuit challenging the town’s prayer practices, said in a statement that “the Supreme Court just relegated millions of Americans—both believers and nonbelievers—to second-class citizenship. 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.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.