U.S. Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Prayer at Public Body Meetings, But Not Without Constraints
may 6, 2014
In Town of Greece v. Galloway, No. 12-696, 2014 WL 1757828 (May 5, 2014), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a New York town which opened its monthly town board meetings with a prayer given by clergy from various local churches. The lawsuit was filed by two women who attended the town board meetings and claimed the prayers violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment "by preferring Christians over other prayer givers and by sponsoring sectarian prayers, such as those given 'in Jesus' name.'" Greece, 2014 WL 1757828 at *5. On May 5th, the U.S. Supreme Court pointed to the longstanding history of prayer before U.S. congressional sessions in finding that prayer before a legislative session serves a legitimate function. The Court also relied heavily on the town's nondiscriminatory policy in that it would allow anyone who wished to lead the town in prayer before the meetings to do so, not just Christian ministers. The Court noted "[t]hat nearly all of the congregations in town turned out to be Christian does not reflect an aversion or bias on the part of town leaders against minority faiths. So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing." Id. at *15.
Despite the apparent favorable ruling for prayers at public body meetings, it is important to note that the U.S. Supreme Court indicated several ways in which such prayers may run afoul of the First Amendment. First, as soon as the public body invites prayer, the public body "must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates." Id. at *11. The public body cannot discriminate by way of only allowing prayers of certain religions. Second, prayer held by the public body at any other time than before a legislative session may not serve the legitimate and historical function for which the prayers in the Greece case were upheld. Third, prayers which "denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion" will likely indicate a constitutional violation. Id. Moreover, the setting in which the prayer occurs must not compel citizens to engage in religious observance. In other words, a public body cannot direct the public to participate, single out those not participating, or otherwise indicate that their decisions may be influenced by one's participation in the prayer.
This certainly will not be the last of litigation related to prayer at public body meetings. If you currently allow prayer at your public body meetings or are looking to start, consult with your attorney to make sure you have a policy in place most consistent with this recent U.S. Supreme Court decision.