The United States Supreme Court yesterday held by a vote of 5 to 4, that a New York town did not violate the First Amendment Establishment Clause by opening its monthly meetings with a prayer.  The town of Greece, New York began its monthly town meetings with a roll call and the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.  Following that, a local clergyman was invited to deliver an invocation.  The “chaplain of the month” was selected through an informal process in which a town employee would call the congregations listed in a local directory until she found a minister available for that month’s meeting.  Eventually, a list of “board chaplains” was created based on those who had agreed to provide the invocation and indicated that they would return in the future.  The town did not exclude any congregations or chaplains.  The record showed, however, that nearly all of the congregations in town were Christian; and from 1999 to 2007, all of the participating ministers were too.  The board did not review the prayers or offer guidance on the content of the prayers.  The purpose of the prayers was to place the board in a “solemn and deliberative frame of mind, invoke divine guidance in town affairs, and follow a tradition practiced by Congress and dozens of state legislatures.”  Some of the ministers invoked Christian themes and messages.

Two citizens who attended board meetings to speak on local issues complained that the prayers violated their religious or philosophical views.  Following the complaints, the town invited a Jewish layman and the chairman of the local Baha’i temple to deliver prayers.  In addition, a Wiccan priestess was granted an opportunity to give an invocation.  The two citizens who had lodged complaints brought suit, claiming that the board’s preference for Christian prayer givers imposed an impermissible establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.  The trial court entered a pretrial judgment in favor of the town, but the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, holding that some aspects of the prayer program conveyed the message that the town was endorsing Christianity.

The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and ultimately concluded that the prayer program did not violate the Establishment Clause.  The Court previously held, in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, that the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of opening its sessions with a prayer did not violate the First Amendment.  Further, as practiced by Congress since the framing of the Constitution, legislative prayer “lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.”

The Court rejected the argument that board prayer should be limited to the “most general, nonsectarian reference to God.”  According to the Court, restricting prayer to such a standard was not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer outlined in Supreme Court precedent.  Further, the country’s history and tradition have shown that prayer in this limited context can coexist with the principles of religious freedom.  In fact, Congress continues to permit its appointed and visiting chaplains to express themselves in their religious idioms and welcomes ministers of many creeds.  According to the Court, it would be difficult to define a nonsectarian standard of prayer, stating:  “The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech.  Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian.”

The Court observed, however, that such legislative prayer should be consistent with the purposes of legislative prayer generally, to “lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage.”  Historically, while legislative prayers have varied widely, they often sought peace for the Nation, wisdom for lawmakers, and justice for its people.  Further, these “ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion.”  The court noted that invocations that “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion” may fall short of the standard and that this would “present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”

According to the Court, the town in this case did not violate the Establishment Clause by inviting predominantly Christian ministers to lead the prayer.  The town made reasonable efforts to identify all of the congregations located in the community and welcomed a prayer by any minister or layman who wished to give one.  The Court stated:  “So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.”  The town’s prayer program also did not have a coercive effect on those attending board meetings.  The brief, solemn, and respectful prayers did not compel citizens to engage in a particular religious observance.  The prayer had a permissible ceremonial purpose, rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions.  The Court held that the town’s practice of opening board meetings with prayer did not violate the First Amendment.

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