Opening government meetings with prayer was upheld by the Supreme Court on Monday, even if those prayers are overwhelmingly Christian — a practice previously argued by many to be in violation of the Establishment Clause.
In a 5-4 verdict, the majority ruled that opening local government meetings with sectarian prayers does not violate the Establishment Clause so long as no particular religion is advanced or disparaged, and residents are not coerced.
Supported by the court’s conservative justices, the ruling was largely based on the United State’s history of legislative prayer, dating back to the framers of the Constitution.
“As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of 'God save the United States and this honorable court' at the opening of this court's sessions," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Arguing for the court’s liberal bloc, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the dominance of Christian prayer-givers put the policy out of bounds given the intimate setting of local government meetings and the participation of average citizens.
"When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another," Kagan said. "And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines."
Beginning in 2007, the seven-year legal battle came in response to eight years of having Christian-only prayers in the town of Greece, NY where 100,000 people with different religions live. Taking the board to the federal court, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens contended that its prayers aligned the town with one religion.
In response to the legal battle, Greece town officials included different religions in their volunteer-prayer givers, bringing in a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and a member of the Baha’I faith.
Although the two women contended that the prayers in Greece were unconstitutional because town officials pressured those in attendance to participate, the Supreme Court ultimately disagreed in a narrow ruling.
Although most state legislatures open their sessions with a prayer, and usually with guidelines, the Supreme Court did disallow prayer in public schools in the 1960s, ruling against Bible readings, the Lord’s Prayer or an official state prayer.
In response to the ruling, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest association of freethinkers, agnostics, atheists and humanists, have announced its “Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award” — an award given to citizens who succeed in delivering secular “invocations” at local government meetings.
The organization, who battled the City of Turlock’s decision to have the words “In God We Trust” written in the City Council chambers in 2009, says that they will hold the annual event until the Greece decision is overturned.
"We'd like to see secular citizens flood government meetings with secular invocations that illustrate why government prayers are unnecessary, ineffective, divisive, embarrassing and exclusionary of the 20-30 percent of the U.S. population today that identifies as nonreligious," said FFRF co-founder and President Ann Nicol Gaylor, who initially founded the foundation for the very purpose of protesting government prayer at city and county meetings.
In Turlock, City Manager Roy Wasden says that despite the protests from the FFRF in 2009 regarding the “In God We Trust” sign above the Council dais and having prayers before council meetings, the Council’s action was legal and within their purview.
“We do not limit invocations, before the Council meetings, to Christian faiths,” said Wasden. “We have had non-Christian faiths offer prayers, and will schedule whoever volunteers for the pre-meeting prayer.”
Since 2009 the Turlock City Council has opted to hold prayers prior to the official start of the meetings.