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U.S. Supreme Court Holds That Local Governments May Open Meetings With Sectarian Prayer

Matthew K. Schettenhelm
Jake Vollebregt
Best Best & Krieger LLP - Washington Office

May 9, 2014

Previously published on May 6, 2014

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it is constitutional for a town board to begin its monthly meeting with ceremonial invocations — even those that include sectarian references. According to Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway et al. (No. 12-696), decided on Monday, a local government generally need not censor prayers to remove references to particular religions, nor actively search for prayer givers to achieve religious balance. The U.S. Constitution’s Establishment Clause is generally satisfied if:

  • a local government maintains a policy of nondiscrimination;
  • over time the practice is not exploited to proselytize or disparage any faith;
  • and the local government does not require the public to participate or indicate that participation could influence its decisions.

The Town of Greece, in upstate New York, followed the practice of Congress and various state legislatures by having a brief prayer before sessions of the Town Board. The Board created a rotation of clergy members willing to provide a prayer by contacting religious organizations listed in the town’s community guide. All of the participating ministers represented Christian congregations. Some spoke “in a distinctly Christian idiom. And, a minority of them invoked religious holidays, scripture, or doctrine.”

The Supreme Court held that the Town’s practice does not violate the First Amendment because it is consistent with the prayer practice that the Court upheld more than 30 years ago in Chambers v. Marsh. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy rejected the view that prayers must be nonsectarian and that government officials must act as “supervisors and censors of religions speech.” Although particular prayers in the Town “strayed” from the Court’s tradition, the Court found no “pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose.”

The majority also found that Greece’s practice does not coerce non-adherents to participate. Although Justice Kennedy stressed that this remains “a fact-sensitive” inquiry, he also explained that the principal audience for invocations “is not, indeed, the public but lawmakers themselves, who may find that a moment of prayer or quiet reflection sets the mind to a higher purpose and thereby eases the task of governing.” The opinion hinged on the fact that the Town Board members neither directed the public to participate, nor suggested that their official decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer.

It is important to note that this decision addresses whether a legislative body’s public prayer violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The case does not address establishment clauses of state constitutions, such as Article XVI, Section 5 of the California Constitution.


The views expressed in this document are solely the views of the author and not Martindale-Hubbell. This document is intended for informational purposes only and is not legal advice or a substitute for consultation with a licensed legal professional in a particular case or circumstance.

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