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U.S. Supreme Court rules that prayer at town council meetings is constitutional

May 5, 2014 - Andrea Johnson
Should city council meetings start with a prayer?

They do in Greece, N.Y., where two women, one a Jew and one an atheist, sued back in 2007 over the town council's practice of starting city government meetings with a non-sectarian prayer, usually Christian and usually led by a Christian chaplain of the month.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 today that those town council prayers don't violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution because there is a long tradition of legislative prayer and because no particular religion is being advanced or disparaged and no one is being coerced to say the prayer. The five justices who joined in the majority decision – Justices Anthony Kennedy, Samuel Alito, John Roberts, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas – are all Catholic. Justices Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, who voted against the decision, are all Jewish, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, while Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who also joined in the minority opinion, was raised Catholic. Interestingly, Kennedy joined in a decision back in 1992 that banned prayer by clergy at high school graduations. That was different, he said, because of the nature of the event and the age of the participants.

The religious practices of the Supreme Court justices and how they affected the ruling are already the subject of much lively debate. As the season of high school graduations approaches, there will also likely be the usual stories in the news about lawsuits over those rogue schools that still make prayer a part of the ceremony. In past years, student speakers have been the ones to defy legal bans and lead the audience in a prayer from the podium, often to the delight of the majority of the crowd and the quiet dismay of a seething minority.

I can see why the Jewish woman and the atheist woman might be made uncomfortable by a Christian prayer at a supposedly secular town meeting. I can also see why their children or grandchildren might be equally uncomfortable if one of their classmates decided to lead the audience in the "Our Father" at a public high school graduation. These are secular, not religious, events and a public prayer is a reminder that they are not in the majority. On the other hand, I don't know if their discomfort is s a good enough reason to ban prayer from public meetings or from high school graduations. I don't believe the Constitution requires citizens to give up their right to freedom of expression at the entrance to city hall. Apparently the majority of the Supreme Court is in agreement with me.

The case is Greece v. Galloway, 12-696.

 
 

Article Comments

(32)

JackAaah

May-11-14 8:11 PM

I feel I have moved forword enough now to declare that BigGovernment is now my religion, and no one will stop my practice of it...in or out of the government.

AndreaJohnson

May-10-14 1:28 PM

Or perhaps it is exactly what it looks like, a reaffirmation of the right to freedom of religious expression in the public square. The law and its community standard guidelines apply equally to everyone.

PoeticJustice16

May-10-14 12:45 PM

De minimis curat lex:

The law does not concern itself with trivialities.

PoeticJustice16

May-10-14 11:54 AM

The point is -- despite the horribly undue influence in legal affairs and public policy, "Christianity" in America has become like hunting or opera: yes, a small number of enthusiasts are still deeply involved, but for most, it's a ritualistic old pastime from another era.

The Supreme's decision contemplates the sound of that proverbial tree falling in the empty woods. The decision is actually a reflection of the "Christians'" diminishing relevance to public life.

AndreaJohnson

May-09-14 2:51 PM

I'm not sure what the comment on church attendance has to do with the discussion about the Supreme Court decision.

PoeticJustice17

May-09-14 10:38 AM

The so-called "Christians" have long sought to foist their bizarre, ancient creeds on the rest of us in America.

The good news is . . . with each passing year, there are fewer and fewer of these women hating, homophobic, hypocrite Bible thumpers.

Currently, less than 20% of Americans regularly attend church.

AndreaJohnson

May-09-14 10:07 AM

Actually, I don't think all religions are likely to be accommodated equally but the Supreme Court didn't require that, either. They required a reasonable effort to invite religions that are representative of the community -- those listed in a directory. If someone else requests to be chaplain, it will probably have to be allowed. I think if the atheists and Jews and other groups in the community make a concerted effort, they can probably persuade the council members that the prayer before meetings is a lot more trouble than it's worth. That's the way it should come to an end, too, through more speech, not through an edict from the Supreme Court. Everyone has a right to speak and everyone should exercise their right to speak. I don't like laws that attempt to limit expression. I also don't think a complete bar between religion and government is constitutional.

May-09-14 9:41 AM

If you truly believe all religions will be accommodated equally at these council meetings I have a bridge to nowhere on Minot's north hill for you ~

Government and religion should not be holding hands. Besides, one hand is already being held by corporations and the other by wall street, so I'm not sure where this third hand is coming from.

A 5-4 decision is hardly clear, just a matter of timing. Roe v Wade would probably be a different decision today too, which you would probably think is incorrect.

Even the Bible says "“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven."

Why does nobody follow this?

AndreaJohnson

May-08-14 7:37 PM

I disagree with your particular interpretation of the establishment clause and so did the Supreme Court. I also doubt that there will be a complete separation of church and state in the way that you mean it. I will never favor a decision that puts limits on speech and that's pretty much what you're advocating. If these people want to have prayers at their meetings, they should be able to have prayers, whether it be to Jesus Christ, Allah, Vishnu, Zeus or Mother Nature. It should be left up to the locals to choose the chaplain of the month based on who lives in the community and who asks to be the chaplain.

May-08-14 2:48 PM

I understand what you are saying, but what I'm saying is that this argument will not end until the separation is complete. And it will, just a matter of time.

Since time = money, taxpayers are indeed paying for prayers at official government functions.

AndreaJohnson

May-08-14 1:44 PM

It means that the federal government is forbidden from establishing a state church and requiring taxpayers to pay for it, as was common in Europe. It also means that the government may not interfere in the free exercise of religion or lack thereof by the populace. It does not mean that religion must be completely divorced from the public square. Legislative prayer has existed for centuries in this country, which is why the Obama administration filed a brief in support of the practice with the Supreme Court.

May-08-14 8:29 AM

Interestingly the "Wall of Separation" phrase dates back to a 1644 Baptist named Roger Williams. He insisted that the state should not intrude into the free exercise of religion, and that religion should be disestablished from government.

Couldn't be more clear what this phrase means, but it can be twisted like much of the constitution.

AndreaJohnson

May-07-14 11:29 PM

Jefferson's words to the Danbury Baptists are often taken out of context. If you read the letter in its entirety, he is clearly talking about separation of church and state as a way to protect religion from interference by the government of the time.

May-07-14 6:11 PM

If you believe what Thomas Jefferson wrote about a "Wall of Separation" it IS what the constitution says.

Actually the number of government employees is around 8%.

AndreaJohnson

May-07-14 1:37 PM

That isn't what the Supreme Court has said. It's also not what the Constitution says.

May-07-14 1:16 PM

Since when does the opening of an official government meeting need to be a ceremony?

Anyway, what I'm saying is prayer/government shouldn't mix and this is breaking the "Wall" Thomas Jefferson spoke of.

Doesn't matter if they want to allow all religions, the point is none should be allowed at a government function.

AndreaJohnson

May-07-14 12:19 PM

That isn't what the Supreme Court decided. They said solemn, respectful prayer during the ceremonial part of a meeting is constitutional and it can be prayer that refers to Jesus,the Virgin Mary, Allah, the Great Spirit, Buddha or Vishnu or any other deity or none. The Obama administration filed a brief supporting legislative prayer, too.

May-07-14 8:22 AM

""Like it or not, it is constitutional for people to pray in the public square""

And this is fine as long as it's not the government setting up the prayer meeting. Anyone can pray if they want to in school, it just can't be an organized (by the school or teachers) exercise. The same rules should apply for council or legislative meetings. Time for the government to be completely secular.

landslide, I am no fan of Obamacare.

AndreaJohnson

May-06-14 7:50 PM

The same rules would apply if we were talking about a Chasidic enclave in New York City that has Jewish prayers before it meets or a largely Muslim community in Michigan. Like it or not, it is constitutional for people to pray in the public square, so long as no one is being coerced to join in and council members don't make decisions based on who joins in or refuses to join in with the prayer.

May-06-14 5:47 PM

No, they did so because 5 of the justices are Catholic.

The Constitution is in place to protect minorities from majority mob rule.

AndreaJohnson

May-06-14 4:56 PM

They did not, because doing so is unconstitutional.

May-06-14 3:43 PM

""The council must permit this, even if the petitioner is an atheist, a Satanist, a Wiccan, a Buddhist, a Jainist or an Asatru heathen practitioner.""

This will happen, eventually. Then we will be right back to the protesting, only from the other side. The SC could have put an end to this nonsense and colossal waste of time.

AndreaJohnson

May-06-14 1:25 PM

That depends on your interpretation of the Constitution, doesn't it? I don't think they got it wrong, nor do I think there is a right not to be bothered by someone else's religious expression. The correct response to speech you disagree with is always more speech. If they don't like the prayer chaplain, the people of Greece, N.Y. should petition the council to be the next month's prayer chaplain. The council must permit this, even if the petitioner is an atheist, a Satanist, a Wiccan, a Buddhist, a Jainist or an Asatru heathen practitioner. At some point, if they become uncomfortable with the content and the end result of their decision to hold prayers before the start of a council meeting in the land of the free, the council will likely decide to do away with prayer altogether. But the Supreme Court just said you don't get to stop people altogether from saying prayers in public in the public square, at least at the town council meeting. It's a ruling that guarantees more freedom.

May-06-14 1:15 PM

No freedom is absolute. The 2nd Amendment doesn't mean one can possess WMDs, and the freedom of speech does not apply to one who yells ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater. The religionist is always free to practice his / her faith, but this does not include prayer over the intercom of a public school, nor should it allow such at official state/city proceedings.

SCOTUS got this one wrong, and while their ruling isn't surprising, considering the religiosity of the majority, it serves to further weaken the ‘wall of separation’ between church and state.

AndreaJohnson

May-06-14 1:09 PM

I'll add that the majority decision also makes it clear that the ruling would be different if there was any indication the council members favored people in the audience who joined in the prayer or that there was coercion to participate. The clergy members who participated and sometimes invited the audience to join them in prayer were expressing their own views, not as representatives of the state, and their directions to the audience were viewed by the majority ruling to be reflexive, not coercive in any way. The decision itself is well worth reading, as is the dissent by Justice Kagan.

 
 

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