Supreme Court Upholds Sectarian Prayer at Official Meetings

In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court today overturned a ruling by the Second Circuit appeals court and upheld the practice of an upstate New York town that begins its council meetings with prayers that are almost always given by Christian clergy. Religious Right groups are celebrating the ruling; Ralph Reed announced that his Faith and Freedom coalition would use the ruling to “redouble its efforts” to encourage more prayers at city and county government meetings. Both the decision and the Religious Right's responses are likely to invite more religiously divisive church-state conflicts.

Justice Clarence Thomas used his concurring opinion to argue, as he has before, that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment does not apply to the states at all; in other words, he believes there is no constitutional reason that a state cannot have an official religion. Fortunately, the decision in this case is far narrower than that.

It is, as Justice Stephen Breyer says in the opening sentence of his dissent, a “fact-sensitive” case. It did not revolve around the question of whether legislative prayer is unconstitutional – the Court has previously upheld legislative prayer in Marshv Chambers – but in part whether the way clergy were invited to give prayers to open town council meetings was sufficiently inclusive. In Breyer’s words,

“The question in this case is whether the prayer practice of the town of Greece, by doing too little to reflect the religious diversity of its citizens, did too much, even if unintentionally, to promote the ‘political division along religious lines’ that ‘was one of the principal evils against which the First Amendment was intended to protect.’” [quoting from the Court’s 1971 decision in Lemon v Kurtzman]

Also at issue was whether a town council meeting, at which members of the public are appealing to councilmembers for specific action, is more susceptible to being a coercive environment than a prayer given by a chaplain to a group of lawmakers about to start their legislative day. For example, the council hears debates on individual applications from residents and business owners seeing zoning permits and other licenses. In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan recognizes that the Court has upheld the historical tradition of legislative prayer, but writes that the town hall meetings in Greece are a kind of hybrid, “occasions for ordinary citizens to engage with and petition their government, often on highly individualized matters.” That, she says, requires special care that each member of the community is respected as an equal citizen, something the Town of Greece has not done.

While the plaintiffs in the Town of Greece case did not argue that town leaders were motivated by religious bias, they argued that the selection process led almost exclusively to prayers being given by Christian ministers, and to prayers that were not just ceremonial invocations but quite explicitly sectarian. Kagan writes that town meetings need not be religion-free zones, saying that “pluralism and inclusion in a town hall can satisfy the constitutional requirement of neutrality,” but concluded that the board of the Town of Greece did nothing to recognize religious diversity, and that its practice “does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.” She offered a hypothetical of a Muslim resident coming before the board to see a zoning variance to build an addition on her home:

“But just before she gets to say her piece, a minister deputized by the Town asks her to pray ‘in the name of God’s only son Jesus Christ.’ She must think – it is hardly paranoia, but only the truth—that Christian worship has become entwined with local governance. And now she faces a choice—to pray alongside the majority as one of that group or somehow to register her deeply felt difference….She does not wish to be rude to her neighbors, nor does she wish to aggravate the Board members whom she will soon be trying to persuade. And yet she does not want to acknowledge Christ’s divinity, any more than many of her neighbors would want to deny that tenet. So assume she declines to participate with the others in the first act of the meeting—or even, as the majority proposes, that she sands up and leaves the room altogether…At the least, she becomes a different kind of citizen, one who will not join in the religious practice that the Town Board has chosen as reflecting its own and the community’s most cherished beliefs. And she thus stands at a remove, based solely on religion, from her fellow citizens and her elected representatives.

Everything about that situation, I think, infringes the First Amendment…That the Town Board selects, month after month and year after year, prayergivers who will reliably speak in the voice of Christianity, and so places itself behind a single creed. That in offering those sectarian prayers, the Board’s chosen clergy members repeatedly call on individuals, prior to participating in local governance, to join in a form of worship that may be at odds with their own beliefs. That the clergy thus put some residents to the unenviable choice of either pretending to pray like the majority or declining to join its communal activity, at the very moment of petitioning their elected leaders. That the practice thus divides the citizenry, creating one class that shares the Board’s own evident religious beliefs and another (far smaller) class that does not. And that the practice also alters a dissenting citizen’s relationship with her government, making her religious difference salient when she seeks only to engage her elected representatives as would any other citizen.”

Kagan writes that the Court majority opinion reflected “two kinds of blindness.” First, it missed the difference between traditional legislative prayer and the setting of the town council, a difference she described as a “chasm,” and the fact that the prayers in Greece are mostly addressed to the public rather than lawmakers. She said the majority “changes the subject” rather than addressing the sectarian content of the prayers delivered in Greece, such as those invoking “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” or “the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” These are not, as she says, the recitation of “God save the United States and this honorable Court” invoked at the beginning of Supreme Court sessions.

Kagan cites George Washington’s well-known letter to the Newport Hebrew Congregation, in which he assured members of that congregation that the First Amendment does not simply tolerate people of minority faiths, rather all possess the same “immunities of citizenship.”

Writes Kagan:

For me, that remarkable guarantee means at least this much: When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines. I believe, for all the reasons I have given, that the Town of Greece betrayed that promise. I therefore respectfully dissent from the Court’s decision.

Breyer also joined Kagan’s dissent, as did Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor. The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway.

PFAW Foundation