News

Supreme Court endorses prayers before government meetings

Supreme Court endorses prayers before government meetings

SUPREME COURT:Reverend Dr. Rob Schenck, of Faith and Action, center, speaks in front of the Supreme Court with Raymond Moore, left, and Patty Bills, both also of Faith and Action, during a news conference, Monday, May 5, in Washington, in favor of the ruling by the court's conservative majority that was a victory for the town of Greece, N.Y., outside of Rochester. A narrowly divided Supreme Court upheld decidedly Christian prayers at the start of local council meetings on Monday, declaring them in line with long national traditions though the country has grown more religiously diverse. Photo: clipart.com/Carolyn Kaster

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday gave local government officials across the United States more leeway to begin public meetings with a prayer, ruling that sectarian invocations do not automatically violate the U.S. Constitution.

The court said on a 5-4 vote that the town of Greece in New York state did not violate the Constitution’s ban on government endorsement of religion by allowing Christian prayers before monthly meetings.

Although such prayers have long been a tradition in some communities, the high court had never before expressly said sectarian prayers could be constitutional in some circumstances or specifically held that prayers could be given before meetings of local government entities.

In Monday’s decision, the court said a prayer would violate the Constitution if there was an attempt to intimidate, coerce or convert nonbelievers. Even the two town residents who sued – one is Jewish and one is an atheist – had conceded that the Constitution permits some types of nonsectarian prayers.

The difficulty facing the justices was deciding how courts should consider when a prayer could violate the First Amendment, which requires the separation of church and state.

The court was divided along ideological lines, with the conservative wing saying the prayers were acceptable, while the liberal justices said the practice violated the First Amendment. The five justices in the majority are Roman Catholic. Of the four dissenters, three are Jewish and one is Catholic.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, wrote the majority opinion. He said the town’s prayers were consistent with the high court’s 1983 precedent in a case called Marsh v. Chambers. That case allowed prayers before state legislative sessions based in large part on the historical nature of the practice.

Kennedy wrote that public prayers need not be nonsectarian.

“To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech,” Kennedy wrote.

Although the policy in Greece, a town of 100,000 people, does not embrace a particular religion, all members of the public who gave a prayer were Christians until the two women filed suit in 2008. Some of the prayers at issue featured explicitly Christian references, including mentions of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. The prayer-givers on occasions asked members of the audience to participate by, for example, bowing their heads, according to court papers.

‘OFFENSE’ VS ‘COERCION’

Residents Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, said in their lawsuit that the practice made them uncomfortable.

The court ruled that the content of the prayers did not constitute coercion, although the majority was divided on the legal rationale on that point.

Kennedy wrote that “offense … does not equate to coercion.”

In offering guidance on what kind of prayers would be constitutional, Kennedy said they should be at the opening of the meeting and be “solemn and respectful in tone.”

Prayers that “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion” might not pass muster, he said.

Writing on behalf of the four liberals, Justice Elena Kagan said that for years the prayers in Greece were sectarian and the town did nothing to encourage members of other faiths to give the prayers.

“In my view, that practice does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government,” Kagan wrote.

Kagan said the court would likely find that judges giving prayers before trials or election officials doing so at a polling place on Election Day would be unconstitutional and questioned why the Greece prayers were any different.

She expressed concern about the court endorsing “religious favoritism.”

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative legal group that represented the town, welcomed the ruling.

“The Supreme Court has again affirmed that Americans are free to pray,” said David Cortman, one of the group’s lawyers.

Greg Lipper, a lawyer with Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the decision allows local government bodies to give less attention to the interests of members of minority faiths and nonbelievers. Lipper said, “It definitely increases the leeway of local boards to impose majority religion” and was likely to be felt in majority Christian areas.

The case reached the high court after the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled against the town in May 2012. A district court had previously supported the town’s position by dismissing the lawsuit filed by Galloway and Stephens.

The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway, U.S. Supreme Court, No. 12-696

(Editing by Howard Goller and Grant McCool)

Recent Headlines

in Entertainment

This weekend in entertainment history

rainman

A look back on some of Hollywood's most memorable headlines.

in Music

Ozzy Osbourne to undergo surgery

British musicians Ozzy Osbourne of Black Sabbath, arrives at the Classic Rock Roll of Honour awards 2013 at the Camden Roundhouse in north London, Thursday, Nov. 14, 2013.

Ozzy Osbourne has cancelled his upcoming Ozzfiesta event in Mexico to undergo surgery.

in Entertainment

Angelina Jolie crowned world’s top feminist icon

Angelina Jolie arrives at the 20th annual Critics' Choice Movie Awards at the Hollywood Palladium on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015, in Los Angeles.

Angelina Jolie and Emma Watson top the list of the world's foremost feminist icons.

in Entertainment, National

Celebrities protest new Indiana law

George Takei poses for a portrait at Quaker Good Energy Lodge with GenArt and the Collective , during the Sundance Film Festival, on Saturday, Jan. 18, 2014 in Park City, Utah.

Celebrities call for an Indiana boycott after the passing of a controversial law that could lead to discrimination against gay couples.

in Entertainment

REVIEW: ‘It Follows’ is the best American horror film in a decade

In this image released by Brigade Marketing, actress Maika Monroe appears in a scene of It Follows, directed by David Robert Mitchell. “It Follows,” has been arguably the buzziest American film at Cannes next to Bennett Miller’s wrestling drama “Foxcatcher,” which boasts a far more famous cast and a major premiere at the Palais des Festival.

"It Follows" is a horror movie worthy of classic comparisons.