Prayers at Town Meetings Are Constitutional, Supreme Court Rules

By Brett Snider, Esq. on May 05, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld opening prayers at town meetings Monday, ruling that even consistent sectarian prayers did not violate the First Amendment.

In a 5-4 decision in Greece v. Galloway, the High Court affirmed the town of Greece, New York's practice of offering a prayer before opening town board meetings, despite the fact that the vast majority of these prayers were distinctly Christian. Two Greece residents sued over the practice, The New York Times reports.

Prayers at town meetings are permitted under the Constitution, the Court ruled. But why?

Legislative Prayers Are Tradition

Greece had opened its town board meetings with prayers from local clergymen which often included sectarian references to "Lord," "Jesus Christ," and the "Holy Trinity." The U.S. Supreme Court ruled more than 30 years ago that even state legislatures were allowed to have sectarian prayers to open their sessions because the practice dates back to the time of the First Congress.

While the First Amendment's Establishment Clause would normally prevent government bodies from seemingly endorsing a religious practice -- often to the practical exclusion of others -- the Court found this prayer practice consistent with the Constitution. The High Court had previously refused to uphold similar prayers at public school graduations.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that this practice was deeply embedded in the history of our nation. Greece's prayers appeared to take on a consistently Christian character, but Kennedy writes that these kinds of ceremonial prayers are in essence a recognition that "many Americans" believe in extra-governmental authorities which guide their lives.

In fact, to scrub out references to "Christ" or "Pentecost" would be to neuter and censor religious speech -- which ironically would be more likely to be found unconstitutional. The Court isn't alone in its findings; President Barack Obama also sided with ceremonial prayers at government meetings.

Dissent Warns of Religious Blindness

Writing for the dissent, Justice Elena Kagan warned that the majority seems to adopt a "no big deal" attitude toward sectarian prayer. A town hall meeting that begins by invoking the sacrifice of "Christ" may have a much different effect on a Muslim or Jewish citizen seeking help from their local government than it might a Christian, Kagan wrote.

Kagan adds that these practices would not fly in a criminal court or polling place, so why at town hall?

The majority might say the difference is tradition, which has existed since the First Amendment was drafted.

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