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U.S. Supreme Court rules that prayer at town council meetings is constitutional

May 5, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
Should city council meetings start with a prayer?

They do in Greece, N.Y., where two women, one a Jew and one an atheist, sued back in 2007 over the town council's practice of starting city government meetings with a non-sectarian prayer, usually Christian and usually led by a Christian chaplain of the month.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 today that those town council prayers don't violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution because there is a long tradition of legislative prayer and because no particular religion is being advanced or disparaged and no one is being coerced to say the prayer. The five justices who joined in the majority decision – Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas – are all Catholic. Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, who voted against the decision, are all Jewish, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, while Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who also joined in the minority opinion, was raised Catholic. Interestingly, Kennedy joined in a decision back in 1992 that banned prayer by clergy at high school graduations. That was different, he said, because of the nature of the event and the age of the participants.

The religious practices of the Supreme Court justices and how they affected the ruling are already the subject of much lively debate. As the season of high school graduations approaches, there will also likely be the usual stories in the news about lawsuits over those rogue schools that still make prayer a part of the ceremony. In past years, student speakers have been the ones to defy legal bans and lead the audience in a prayer from the podium, often to the delight of the majority of the crowd and the quiet dismay of a seething minority.

I can see why the Jewish woman and the atheist woman might be made uncomfortable by a Christian prayer at a supposedly secular town meeting. I can also see why their children or grandchildren might be equally uncomfortable if one of their classmates decided to lead the audience in the "Our Father" at a public high school graduation. These are secular, not religious, events and a public prayer is a reminder that they are not in the majority. On the other hand, I don't know if their discomfort is s a good enough reason to ban prayer from public meetings or from high school graduations. I don't believe the Constitution requires citizens to give up their right to freedom of expression at the entrance to city hall. Apparently the majority of the Supreme Court is in agreement with me.

The case is Greece v. Galloway, 12-696.


Article Comments

May-06-14 12:59 PM

""How hard do you suppose it would be for a town in the western part of this state to round up a Jewish prayer chaplain, for instance?""

Very difficult. And therein lies the part of the problem.

""the town council is not required to go to extraordinary lengths to find minority religious leaders if it does not fit the demographics of the town.""

Could the okaying of discrimination be any clearer?

This is a bonehead ruling by the SCOTUS

May-06-14 12:54 PM

Refer back to the quote from Harry Blackmun below. It is brilliant and fits this case PERFECTLY.


May-06-14 12:34 PM

The majority decision said the town council is not required to go to extraordinary lengths to find minority religious leaders if it does not fit the demographics of the town. So long as they are not actively discriminating and not disparaging another religion or belief system or forcing people to participate, it's fine if most of the prayer chaplains are Christians. How hard do you suppose it would be for a town in the western part of this state to round up a Jewish prayer chaplain, for instance? On the other hand, they ought to invite the local Native American spiritual leader to give a prayer now and then if he's listed in a directory since there are probably quite a few Native Americans in the community and some may practice traditional spirituality. But the council members aren't required to go knocking on doors to find him if he is NOT listed in a directory and all the churches are.

May-06-14 11:57 AM

But if the majority of the locals are Christian, how do you think it will play out?

Just because there has been a long tradition doesn't mean it's right. Slavery was a tradition for hundreds of years.

This is government favoring one religion over another, or none, plain and simple.


May-06-14 11:42 AM

In that particular town, the atheist can ask to become chaplain of the month and deliver the speech of her choosing in her turn. I wouldn't expect her words to be well received by all, but that isn't required by the constitution. People can also get up and leave or wait outside and enter when the prayer is done.They can petition the council to end prayer altogether. The Supreme Court left it up to the locals.

May-06-14 8:27 AM

I expect that the Taliban also open their meetings with prayer. And make laws with an eye to enforcing compliance with their own "religious principles", just as we do.

"The mixing of government and religion can be a threat to free government, even if no one is forced to participate.... When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion, it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some."

— Harry Andrew Blackmun, U.S. Supreme Court Justice


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