The U.S. Supreme Court on May 5 upheld the practice of voluntary prayer before public meetings by a 5-4 ruling, drawing praise from those who said such prayers are a long American tradition that avoids censoring religion.
“Opening public meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution themselves practiced,” Alliance Defending Freedom senior counsel David Cortman said May 5. “Speech censors should have no power to silence volunteers who pray for their communities just as the Founders did.”
Cortman said the Supreme Court “affirmed that Americans are free to pray.”
“In America, we tolerate a diversity of opinions and beliefs; we don’t silence people or try to separate what they say from what they believe,” he said.
The lawsuit, filed in 2007, was brought by Americans United for Separation of Church and State on behalf of Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens. The plaintiffs claimed that the Rochester-area town of Greece, N.Y., violated the constitution in its practice of opening town meetings with prayer.
The majority of prayers offered before the small town's local legislative sessions have been delivered by Christian ministers, although the invocation is open to representatives of any belief who wish to offer prayer, and other groups including Wiccans have also done so in recent years.
Monday’s Supreme Court decision in “Town of Greece v. Galloway” overturned a 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had sided with the plaintiffs.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion, said that the First Amendment “is not a majority rule, and the government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech.”
He said that legislative prayer is “meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the nation’s heritage.”
“Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function,” he said.
Kennedy suggested that invocations that “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion” would present a “different case.”
He said the town made “reasonable efforts” to identify all of its religious congregations and invite any minister or layman who wished to deliver an invocation. He said the prayer was not coercive.
Justice Elena Kagan, who wrote the dissent, objected that the prayers were “explicitly” and “constantly and exclusively” Christian. She objected to the content of the prayers, saying chaplains appeared to assume that all meeting attendees were Christian. She also questioned chaplains’ apparent lack of effort to be “inclusive” in their prayers and to assure members of the public that they do not have to participate in the prayers.
Kagan said the prayers could have a negative effect on people with business at public meetings who disagree with the beliefs expressed.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing a concurring opinion with the majority, said that there is a “long history” against the argument that only non-sectarian prayer is permissible in such cases.
He said stricter guidelines on prayers could result in local governments screening and editing prayers before they are delivered or rebuking or excluding a chaplain for the prayers he or she delivered.
Thomas G. Hungar, an attorney allied with the Alliance Defending Freedom who argued the case before the Supreme Court, said the decision “reaffirmed that the practice of prayer before legislative bodies is firmly embedded in the history and traditions of this nation.”
He said the court “simply reinforced what has been true about America since its founding: Americans should be free to speak and act consistently with their own beliefs.”