U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Religious Prayer at Council Meetings

By:  Christy Drake-Adams

As reported in previous TCAA newsletters, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear several cases of interest to cities during its October 2013 Term.  On May 5, 2014, the Court decided one of those cases.  In Town of Greece v. Galloway, No. 12-696, 2014 WL 1757828 (May 5, 2014), the Court ruled that prayers that open city council meetings do not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, even if they routinely stress Christianity.

Beginning in 1999, the Town of Greece followed an informal method to select prayer givers.  Id. at *4.  The town contacted clergy listed in a local directory and invited them to lead the pre-board meeting prayers, maintaining that a minister or layperson of any belief, including atheism, could give the invocation.  Id.  For an approximate eleven-year span, the meetings were opened with a Christian-oriented prayer.  Id. In 2008, after residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens complained, four of twelve meetings were opened by non-Christians.  Id. at *5, *27.

Unsatisfied, Galloway and Stephens sued the town arguing it had violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Id. at *5.  In support of their argument, the respondents identified some prayers that referred to Jesus.  Id.  They sought an injunction to limit the town to “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers that referred only to a “generic God.”  Id.

The district court upheld the town’s practice as consistent with the First Amendment.  Id. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, holding that, viewed in its totality, aspects of the town’s prayer program conveyed the message that the town was endorsing Christianity over other religions in violation of the Establishment Clause.  Id. at *6.

Consistent with Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), a case upholding an opening prayer in the Nebraska legislature, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit’s decision.  Id. at *6-7.  The Court ruled that the Town of Greece’s practice of opening its monthly town board meetings with religious prayer does not constitute an impermissible establishment of religion.

The Court explained that “[t]he inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.”  Id. at *16.  Other factors in finding that the town had not violated the Establishment Clause included the religious makeup of the town’s congregations and the fact that the town was willing to allow a person of any faith to deliver the prayer.  Id. at *13.  The Court cautions, though, that coercion could be possible “if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity.”  Id. at *15.

You can read the full opinion here.