Faced with the Marsh precedent, the challengers did not ask the Court to ban the opening prayers altogether. Instead, they quoted Scalia’s dissent and asked that “prayers that are obviously sectarian ... should be prohibited.”
The majority rejected the very idea of “non-sectarianism.” The legislature could not monitor prayer for its sectarian content, Kennedy wrote: “Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy.” After all, despite what Scalia had written two decades ago, Kennedy wrote, “There is doubt ... that consensus might be reached as to what qualifies as generic or nonsectarian.”
But even with the new green light, local legislative prayer will not become a free-for-all of calls to Jesus, Kennedy continued: “If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion ... [t]hat circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”
In other words, legislators need not—indeed cannot—monitor prayers for sectarian content. The courts, however, can monitor all the prayers as a group if someone brings a lawsuit. But here’s a foretaste of how that monitoring might function: Every one of those flaws was present in the prayer program at issue in Town of Greece, and the majority simply insisted that they were not.
The Kennedy opinion was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, and (mostly) by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Alito and Justice Clarence Thomas wrote separately—Thomas to urge an even more permissive rule, and Alito to explain that the dissent was not just wrong but really, really wrong.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for herself and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor, emphasized that a religious dissenter who abstains from public prayer becomes “a different kind of citizen,” who “stands at a remove, based solely on religion, from her fellow citizens and her elected representatives.” The dissent did not argue that the town board should not open with prayer; instead, it called for “the recognition that we are a pluralistic people too,” and that “government must take especial care to ensure that the prayers [at meetings] will seek to include, rather than serve to divide.” (Breyer joined the dissent but wrote separately as well to emphasize how important the facts of each case will be.)
Kennedy’s opinion admitted that some prayers will discomfit some dissenting citizens. “Offense, however,” he wrote, “does not equate to coercion.” In response, Kagan directly attacked the idea that mere hypersensitivity is behind the challenge to prayer:
The not-so-implicit message of the majority’s opinion—“What’s the big deal, anyway?”—is mistaken. The content of Greece’s prayers is a big deal, to Christians and non-Christians alike. 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 .... I would treat more seriously the multiplicity of Americans’ religious commitments, along with the challenge they can pose to the project—the distinctively American project—of creating one from the many, and governing all as united.
Under Monday’s precedent, local governments cannot say anything to their volunteer prayer leaders to make sure offense is not repeated, because that would be enforcing non-sectarianism; but minorities should not worry, because at some point at some point the federal courts will draw the line.
This is, in the end, a case about beliefs. If you believe what the majority just said, I have an old crumbling wall to sell you.