U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Prayer in Town Board Meetings

By June 2, 2014April 29th, 2015News

In Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court declared that prayer in town board meetings is an acceptable American tradition as long as the board does not discriminate against minority faiths or coerce participation from non-adherents.

The Court’s ruling focused on the town of Greece, New York, and its practice of opening each town board meeting with a prayer. Since starting the practice in 1999, the board selected prayer givers by calling congregations listed in the town’s directory and inviting willing clergy members to offer an invocation. Because nearly all of the congregations in Greece were Christian, most of the board’s opening prayers were Christian too. According to Greece, however, anyone could volunteer to offer an invocation without regard to religious affiliation. The board did not determine the content of the prayers or control any other aspect of the prayer practice.

In 2008, two town residents complained that the practice improperly aligned the town with Christianity. The board responded by actively recruiting non-Christian prayer givers. In spite of the board’s efforts, though, the majority of the prayers remained Christian. In 2010, the residents filed suit, claiming that the prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by preferring Christians over other prayer givers and by sponsoring sectarian prayers. After a four-year legal battle, the Supreme Court finally resolved the case, settling the issue of legislative prayer.

At the outset, the Supreme Court announced that legislative prayer is a widespread tradition with a long history of acceptance. Its purposes are to lend gravity to public proceedings and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens. The 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.” The only question, then, is whether a specific prayer practice comports with this tradition.

In this case, the two residents argued that Greece’s predominantly Christian prayer practice was discriminatory and coercive to non-Christians and could not be considered an acceptable tradition. Only generic, nonsectarian prayers, they argued, can satisfy the Establishment Clause. The Supreme Court rejected this argument for three reasons. First, the Court found that it would be nearly impossible to reach a consensus as to what qualifies as generic or nonsectarian. Second, requiring generic prayer would force public bodies and courts to review and censor religious speech, creating far greater government entanglement with religion than Greece’s current prayer practice.

Finally, the Court agreed that a coercive or discriminatory prayer practice could violate the Establishment Clause, but concluded that Greece’s practice was neither. The Court acknowledged that some residents found the prayers offensive, but noted that offense does not equate to coercion. A town’s brief, solemn, and respectful prayer at the opening of monthly board meetings does not compel attendees to engage in a religious observance.

Moreover, the board’s prayer practice was not discriminatory. The board made reasonable efforts to identify all congregations within its borders and permitted any willing resident to offer the opening invocation, regardless of religious affiliation. The Constitution does not require a town board to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.

The Court was careful to distinguish this case from Lee v. Weisman, another Supreme Court case involving public prayer. In Lee v. Weisman, a public school allowed a rabbi to deliver a nonsectarian prayer at a graduation ceremony. The Court found that, in the context of a graduation where school authorities maintain close supervision over the conduct of the students and the substance of the ceremony, a religious invocation was coercive to an objecting student.

For the town of Greece, however, the circumstances were different. Unlike a school function, a town board meeting involves mature adults, who “presumably” are “not readily susceptible to religious indoctrination or peer pressure.” Therefore, legislative prayer is constitutionally permissible even if school prayer is not. The applicability of this decision to school board meetings is an issue being actively debated.

Please contact Nancy Krent with your First Amendment and school prayer inquiries.