WASHINGTON (CNN, May 5, 2014) — The Supreme Court gave limited approval Monday to public prayers at a New York town’s board meetings, citing the country’s history of religious acknowledgment in the legislature.
The 5-4 ruling came in yet another contentious case over the intersection of faith and the civic arena. It was confined to the specific circumstances and offered little guidance on how other communities should offer civic prayers without violating the Constitution.
Two local women sued officials in Greece, New York, objecting to invocations at monthly public sessions on government property. The invocations, according to the plaintiffs, have been overwhelmingly Christian in nature over the years.
“The town of Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition,” Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.”
Just moments before the opinion was announced from the bench, the high court began its public session as it has for decades: with the marshal invoking a traditional statement that ends, “God save the United States and this honorable court.” The several hundred people in attendance, along with the justices, stood for the brief ceremony.
The conservative majority offered varying interpretations of when such “ceremonial” prayers would be permissible. Kennedy, along with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, focused on the specifics of the Greece case and did not offer a broad expansion of legislative prayer.
Fellow conservative Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia went further, suggesting that even any “subtle pressure” that local citizens might feel would not be enough to ban such prayers.
In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said, “When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines.”
‘It’s just not appropriate’
The town of about 94,000 residents outside Rochester began allowing prayers to start its meetings in 1999, after years of having a “moment of silence.”
Co-plaintiffs Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway challenged the revised policy, saying officials repeatedly ignored their requests to modify or eliminate the practice, or at least make it more inclusive.
“It’s very divisive when you bring government into religion,” Stephens told CNN from her home. “I don’t believe in God, and Susan is Jewish, so to hear these ministers talk about Jesus and even have some of them who personally question our motives, it’s just not appropriate.”
The town government counters that after concerns from the two women and others, it sought diverse voices, including a Wiccan priestess, to offer invocations. Officials say they do not review the content of the remarks, nor censor any language.
“The faith of the prayer giver does not matter at all,” said John Auberger, Greece’s board supervisor, who began the practice shortly after taking office 1998. “We accept anyone who wants to come in and volunteer to give the prayer to open up our town meetings.”
A federal appeals court in New York found the board’s policy to be a violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which forbids any government “endorsement” of religion. Those judges said it had the effect of “affiliating the town with Christianity.”
Congress and state legislatures regularly open their sessions with a prayer. The question in part before the court is whether local government bodies are different, in that there might be more active involvement with local residents, who may want to personally petition the town in zoning, tax and other matters.
The case of Town of Greece, NY v. Galloway (12-696).