Supreme Court Upholds Prayer During Local Legislative Body Meetings


By: Bill Buechner
Recently, the United States Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision upholding a town’s practice of inviting a local minister to deliver an invocation at the beginning of the town’s monthly board meetings.  Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, — S.Ct. —, 2014 WL 1757828 (May 5, 2014).   A copy of the decision is available here to review.
The town supervisor would invite a local minister to the front of the room to deliver an invocation after roll call and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.  The prayer was intended to place board members in a solemn frame of mind and to invoke divine guidance in making decisions regarding the affairs of the town.  The plaintiffs objected to this practice primarily on three grounds:  (1) the prayers given were often sectarian rather than ecumenical; (2) the invocations were given almost always by Christian ministers; and (3) the practice coerced participation by those who did not share the religious beliefs of the prayer giver.
As to content of the invocations given, the Court held that the First Amendment does not require individuals to “water down” their prayers to remove sectarian content.  In this regard, the Court relied on its previous holding in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), wherein the Court upheld the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of opening its sessions with a prayer delivered by a chaplain paid for with state funds.   The Court noted that the prayers approved in Marsh and given in Congress in close proximity to the drafting of the First Amendment often had distinctly Christian content.   The Court concluded that it would be problematic for courts or government officials to edit or censor prayers, and that prayers given in the name of Jesus, Allah or Jehovah (for example) and which make passing references to religious doctrines do not violate the First Amendment as long as the practice, over time, is not “exploited to proselytize or advance” a particular faith or to disparage any other faith.  Town of Greece, 2014 WL 1757828, at *12.
As to the selection process, the Court explained that nearly all the congregations in the town were Christian and that ministers were selected informally by a town official who called the congregations listed in a local directory.  The town indicated that it would welcome any minister or layperson who wished to give a prayer, and after the plaintiffs complained about the practice, the town specifically invited a Jewish layman and the chairman of the local Baha’i temple to deliver prayers.  Also, a Wiccan priestess requested and was granted an opportunity to give the invocation as well.  The Court held that, as long as individuals are not selected in a discriminatory manner to give the invocation, the selection of prayer givers predominantly from one particular faith does not violate the First Amendment. Id. at *13.
Finally, the Court held that the practice of giving prayers at meetings of a local legislative body does not unconstitutionally coerce participation by nonadherents.  A plurality opinion explained that the practice did not compel citizens to engage in a religious observance and that the principal audience for these invocations is not the general public, but rather the lawmakers themselves. Id. at *14.  The plurality opinion stated that courts may consider whether the pattern of prayers given over time demonstrate a real danger of impermissible coercion, but that “in the general course legislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate.” Id. at *15.  A concurring opinion concluded that the prayers were not unconstitutionally coercive for different reasons.
In light of Town of Greece, it likely will be permissible for local legislative bodies to include an invocation as part of its meetings, so long as the practice, over time, is not exploited to proselytize or advance a particular faith or to disparage any other faith, the selection process is non-discriminatory, and citizens are not required to participate.