by Bob Smietana
The Supreme Court ruled today the Town of Greece, New York, did not violate the Constitution by beginning its official board meeting with prayer, even though most prayers have been from Christian individuals.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Court found no evidence that town officials had discriminated against non-Christian prayers. It also said the prayers had been about universal themes and weren’t meant to proselytize listeners.
Town officials in Greece, a community of about 96,000 just outside of Rochester, have begun their board meetings with a ceremony since 1999. That ceremony includes the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer from local clergy. Few non-Christian prayers have been offered.
In 2008, two residents of Greece sued the town, saying officials there discriminated against non-Christian groups. They wanted the town to only allow generic, ecumenical prayers.
The suit featured lawyers from rival church-state legal groups.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State represented the residents. Alliance Defending Freedom represented the town.
A district court ruled for the town in 2010. But an appeals court ruled in 2012 for the opponents.
In Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court said the town cannot dictate which brand of prayers are acceptable.
“The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech,” they wrote. “Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian.”
Justices said the prayers had not been used to promote any specific faith. They also noted that the prayers were recited before the meeting and that no one was required to listen to them. That made these prayers different than prayers at a high school graduation, they ruled.
“Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation,” they wrote.
Justices Kennedy, Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, and Alito sided with the town. Justices Kagan, Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor dissented.
In her dissent, Justice Kagan said the government belongs to all citizens, no matter what their faith.
“I respectfully dissent from the Court’s opinion because I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religions equality,” she wrote, “the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”
David Savage, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, points out the court split along religious lines for this ruling.
“The five justices in majority are Catholics, and they agreed that an opening prayer at a public government meeting, delivered by a Christian pastor, brings the town together,” said Savage.
The court’s three Jewish justices dissented, as did Justice Sotomayor, who was raised Catholic.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote a piece for Time supporting the ruling.
A government empowered to mandate generic civil religion prayers or to ask citizens to pretend that their government has no higher accountability would be a government too intrusive. It wouldn’t create unity, but would simply silence proper pluralism and replace prayer with bureaucracy.
In this decision, the Supreme Court didn’t violate the separation between the church and the state, rightly understood. The Court instead upheld it, and did the right thing.
The ERLC filed an amicus brief on behalf of the town arguing that a ruling against the town would create “a false, hostile ‘neutrality’ that categorically excludes religions that use prohibited terms, violating the right of all persons to be treated equally by the government, regardless of religious belief.”
The Obama administration did the same, saying that appeals court would have set up a “sectarian quota system” which “raises more First Amendment problems than it might solve.”
In order to comply with the appeals court, town officials would have had to “closely police the content of prayers” and to actively recruit non-Christians to pray at meetings.
“That type of selective invitation and viewpoint-balancing would require the government to engage in behavior that is not neutral as to all religions,” the administration argued.