Legislative prayer at city council meetings has historical support, ceremonial purpose and is permissible says U.S. Supreme Court.

Town of Greece v. Galloway, 12-696 (U.S. May 5, 2014)

This is a First Amendment/Establishment Clause case where citizens challenged the Town’s use of a particular prayer at council meetings. The trial court dismissed the claims, but the 2nd Circuit reversed. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the 2nd Circuit and upheld the dismissal by the trial court.

The Supreme Court began by noting legislative prayer, while religious in nature, has long been compatible with the Establishment Clause. The Town of Greece, NY, would invite local clergymen to deliver invocations at meetings. The informal selection was always limited to unpaid volunteers. The Town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. However, from 1999 to 2007, nearly all of the prayer givers ended up being of the Christian faith. The Plaintiffs sued under the Establishment Clause, did not seek an end to the prayer sessions but only that the sessions be limited to “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers referencing only a “generic God.”  The trial court granted summary judgment, the 2nd Circuit reversed, and the Supremes’ granted certiorari.

The Court went through some history of the Establishment Clause noting the First Congress had legislative prayers and that they considered such a benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society, not a specific endorsement of religion.  The historical use of legislative prayer supports its presence in legislative procedures.  However, any such practice must fit within the traditions followed in Congress in order to be upheld. The prayer need not be generic or nonsectarian.  However, some restrictions do apply. “The relevant constraint derives from its place at the opening of legislative sessions, where it is meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage. Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites law­makers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function. If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threatened damnation or preach conversion, such does not serve the purpose or history of legislative prayer.”  The Town’s legislative prayers were open to all prayer givers and remained within the confines of permissible prayer. The fact the majority of prayer givers were Christian only demonstrates the level of its presence in the community, not an endorsement. So long as the Town remains non-discriminatory, it is not required to search beyond its borders for other religious prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. The majority, plurality, concurrence, and dissent, bounce back and forth between sections of the opinion.  However, in the end it was a 5-4 decision with Justices Kennedy, Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas making up the majority upholding legislative prayer and Justices Breyer, Kagan, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor making up the dissent. A list of attorneys and amici can be found on the docket entry listed here.