On May 5, 2014, the United States Supreme Court ruled that city councils and other public boards can begin their meetings with ceremonial invocations, even those that include sectarian references.
In the case of Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway et al., Docket No. 12-696, the monthly town board meetings in Greece, NY began with roll call, the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer given by clergy selected from congregations listed in a local directory. While open to all creeds, nearly all of the local congregations and almost all of the invocations given were Christian.
An action was brought alleging that the Town violated the Establishment Clause by preferring Christians and sponsoring sectarian prayers. The District Court upheld the prayer practice on summary judgment. The Second Circuit reversed.
The Supreme Court overruled the Second Circuit's ruling, holding that the Town's practice did not violate the First Amendment. The Court ruled that the Establishment Clause did not require legislative prayers to address only a generic god and enforcing such a requirement would require judges to review the prayers and "act as supervisors or censors of religious speech."
While the Court recognized that a town could go too far by allowing prayers that "denigrate non-believers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion," the Court found that although prayers in the Town "strayed" from tradition, there was no "pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose."
The Court also found that the Town did not require participation. The Court stated that the "principal audience for these invocations is not, indeed the public but lawmakers themselves" and the analysis would be different if the Town "directed the public to participate in the prayers, singles out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influences by a person's acquiescence in the prayer opportunity."
Finally, the Town had attempted to identify all of the Town's congregations and welcomed a prayer by any "minister or layman." The Court stated that the fact that most of the congregations in the town were Christian did not reflect an "aversion or bias." The Court held that so long as the policy was "nondiscriminatory," the Town was not required to look outside its borders for non-Christian prayer givers to achieve balance.
If you have any questions, please contact Jeffery Elder at (562) 699-5500 or via email at email@example.com.
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