Supreme Court win for public square religion

Supreme Court | Though divided, justices uphold New York town council’s opening prayers
by Emily Belz
Posted 5/05/14, 12:30 pm

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Monday that the Town of Greece’s practice of opening council meetings with prayer was constitutional, reversing a decision by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. More importantly, the high court ruled that governments and the courts could not force chaplains to open legislative meetings with nonsectarian prayers.

The upstate New York town opened its council meetings for almost a decade with prayers led by Christian clergy. The town had no restrictions on who could offer prayers, but as a predominantly Christian community, the clergy offering prayers were Christian. Two residents filed a lawsuit over the practice, and the town tried to reach clergy from other faiths to lead prayers. A majority of the Supreme Court justices ruled that the town was first of all allowed to open its meetings with sectarian prayers based on practices going back to the First Congress, and second of all could not control what diversity of congregations fell within its borders. Dissenters, the four liberal justices, said the predominantly Christian prayers amounted to “government-sponsored worship.” 

“[T]he town is acknowledging the central place that religion, and religious institutions, hold in the lives of those present,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the conservative majority.

The town’s win was not surprising, but the decision’s partisan division was. The Obama administration even sided with Greece, arguing that the prayers were permissible. 

The court was clear in its 1983 decision, Marsh v. Chambers, that legislative prayer is permissible as long as the prayers weren’t evangelizing or coercive. The Greece case doesn’t have huge immediate implications but puts the high court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence on friendlier ground toward religion in the public square.

Tradition is a big part of why legislative prayers are permissible. 

“That the First Congress provided for the appointment of chaplains only days after approving language for the First Amendment demonstrates that the Framers considered legislative prayer a benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society,” Kennedy wrote for the majority.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote in the chief dissent for the four liberal justices that Greece should lose the case because its prayers were “predominantly sectarian.”

“[P]rayers evoking ‘the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross,’ ‘the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ,’ ‘the life and death, resurrection and ascension of the Savior Jesus Christ,’ the workings of the Holy Spirit, the events of Pentecost, and the belief that God ‘has raised up the Lord Jesus’ and ‘will raise us, in our turn, and put us by His side’?” she wrote. “No. These are statements of profound belief and deep meaning, subscribed to by many, denied by some. … A person’s response to the doctrine, language, and imagery contained in those invocations reveals a core aspect of identity—who that person is and how she faces the world. And the responses of different individuals, in Greece and across this country, of course vary.” Kagan pointed out that the town never reached out to non-Christian chaplains until the suit was filed.

Kennedy returned that no one would ever find consensus about what qualified as a nonsectarian prayer. 

“An insistence on nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer outlined in the court’s cases,” he wrote. “Respondents argue, in effect, that legislative prayer may be addressed only to a generic God. The law and the court could not draw this line for each specific prayer or seek to require ministers to set aside their nuanced and deeply personal beliefs for vague and artificial ones.”

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine based in New York City. Follow Emily on Twitter @emlybelz.

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