The U.S. Supreme Court handed down several big decisions over the summer of 2015, including a ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway that permits local government bodies to say a prayer to open public meetings. The 5-4 ruling, which came in May, was based largely on tradition and history.
Decision from a Divided Court
According to a Reuters report, the Court’s decision was clearly divided along ideological lines, with the conservative justices in favor of ceremonial prayer and the liberal justices opposing it. The five justices in the majority identify as Catholic. Among the dissenting justices, three identify as Jewish and one as Catholic.
The issue before the Court was whether municipal officials in Greece, New York could begin public meetings with a sectarian prayer. According to the two Greece residents who brought suit in 2008, the prayers offered at public meetings were overwhelmingly Christian and frequently included references to the Holy Spirit and Jesus Christ.
The Court ruled that a sectarian prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause as long as citizens aren’t compelled to join the prayer and the prayer neither advances nor disparages any religion. Also, the Court reasoned, such prayers are nearly as old as the United States itself.
Justice Kennedy, who authored the majority opinion, wrote: “As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable court’ at the opening of this court’s sessions.”
The dissent argued that the town’s prayers were wholly dominated by Christian ideology, something that could make non-Christian citizens feel isolated and unequal in such an intimate setting, which in a town of 100,000 residents included meetings ranging from petitions for zoning variances and business permits. In many cases, residents had no choice but to appear at the meetings to transact ordinary business.
Writing for the dissent, Justice Kagan wrote: “When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines.”
Precedent for Ceremonial Prayer
This is not the first time the Court has tackled the issue of legislative prayer. The Court’s opinion in Town of Greece in part upholds an earlier decision, Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 case in which the Court held that government funding for chaplains was constitutional due to an historical tradition of public legislative prayer dating all the way back to the Founders. In Marsh, the Court wrote that legislative prayer is “part of the fabric of our society” and “simply a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”
In Town of Greece, the majority opinion noted that both houses of Congress have opened with a prayer since 1789. The dissent pointed out that these prayers are notably far less sectarian than the Christian-themed prayers said before meetings in Greece.
According to Justice Kennedy, the Court’s decision in Town of Greece complies with the Marsh ruling. Kennedy wrote: “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 non-believers.”