US Supreme Court endorses prayers before government meetings

Ruling says ‘sectarian invocations’ do not violate constitution

Linda Stephens, one of the plaintiffs in a case involving two residents who sued Greece, New York, saying prayers during public meetings ran afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion. The US Supreme Court on Monday ruled that Greece did not violate the Constitution by starting its meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month” who was almost always Christian. Photograph: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

Linda Stephens, one of the plaintiffs in a case involving two residents who sued Greece, New York, saying prayers during public meetings ran afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion. The US Supreme Court on Monday ruled that Greece did not violate the Constitution by starting its meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month” who was almost always Christian. Photograph: Nathaniel Brooks/The New York Times

Tue, May 6, 2014, 01:00

The US Supreme Court yesterday gave local government officials across the United States more leeway to begin public meetings with a prayer, ruling that sectarian invocations do not automatically violate the US constitution.

The court said on a 5-4 vote that the town of Greece in New York state did not violate the constitution’s ban on government endorsement of religion by allowing Christian prayers before monthly meetings.

Although such prayers have long been a tradition in some communities, the high court had never before expressly said sectarian prayers could be constitutional in some circumstances or specifically held that prayers could be given before meetings of local government entities.

In yesterday’s decision, the court said a prayer would violate the constitution if there was an attempt to intimidate, coerce or convert nonbelievers. Even the two town residents who sued – Susan Galloway who is Jewish and Linda Stephens who is an atheist – had conceded that the constitution permits some types of nonsectarian prayers.

Divided
The difficulty facing the justices was deciding how courts should consider when a prayer could violate the First Amendment, which requires the separation of church and state.

The court was divided along ideological lines; the conservative wing saying the prayers were acceptable, while the liberal justices said the practice violated the First Amendment. The five justices in the majority are Roman Catholic. Of the four dissenters, three are Jewish and one is Catholic.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, wrote the majority opinion. He said the town’s prayers were consistent with the high court’s 1983 precedent in a case called Marsh v Chambers. That case allowed prayers before state legislative sessions based in large part on the historical nature of the practice.

Justice Kennedy wrote that public prayers need not be nonsectarian: “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.” Although the policy in Greece does not embrace a set religion, all members of the public who gave a prayer were Christians until the women filed suit in 2008. – (Reuters)