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)