The Supreme Court Expands Local Power To Hold Prayer Before Government Meetings

In a narrow, 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the government may begin town meetings with a prayer, so long as it doesn't discriminate against non-Christians in its selection. 

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In a narrow, 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the government may begin town meetings with a prayer, so long as it doesn't discriminate against non-Christians in its selection. In its decision, the high court found that a New York town's prayer did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The highly anticipated decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway was written by Justice Kennedy, although not all of the majority agreed with the entirety of his opinion, demonstrating just how curious and divisive a case this was. As SCOTUSBlog's live coverage of the decision outlined, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito agreed with Kennedy in full; Justices Scalia and Thomas agreed with all but one section, and Alito ended up also filing a separate concurring opinion, also joined by Scalia.  The dissent was even fractured: Breyer wrote his own dissent, while Justice Kagan wrote an additional dissent that all for minority justices joined.

In his decision, 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 nonbelievers," indicating that the court believes that opening prayers are constitutional, even if they're mostly Christian, as long as the town isn't discriminating against non-Christians. It's, in theory, consistent with a 1983 decision by the court in favor of prayer at the Nebraska legislature. But as SCOTUSBlog points out, those challenging the town of Greece had very specific objections to how the practice was conducted, above and beyond its existence as a civic mention of, say, God. The town hosted entirely Christian opening prayers from the years 1999 — when the practice began — to 2007, and that many were explicitly sectarian in nature:

 About two-thirds of the 130 prayers offered during this time period contained specifically Christian references to Jesus Christ.  Prayers occurred at the start of meetings, which some citizens had to attend to conduct official business, they were followed by thanks from the presiding official and the presentation of a plaque to the “clergy of the month,” and they were listed in the official minutes.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided that this practice was unconstitutional, in part because the overall effect of its overwhelmingly Christian prayers before civic meetings "must be found to be an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint.” Kagan's dissent used excerpts from previous town prayers to argue against Kennedy's assertion that the opening prayers were similar to other "ceremonial" civic references to religion, like the "Under God" mention in the Pledge of Allegiance:

Ceremonial references to the divine surely abound: The majority is right that “the Pledge of Alle­giance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable Court’ ” each fits the bill. But prayers 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”? No. These are statements of pro­found belief and deep meaning, subscribed to by many, denied by some.

She added that "In Greece only Christian clergy members speak, and then mostly in the voice of their own religion; no Allah or Jehovah ever is mentioned."

The full decision is below:

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