HOME > NEWSROOM > ARTICLES > High Court: Handcuffs Off Public Prayer

High Court: Handcuffs Off Public Prayer

HandcuffsFor years, federal courts, government agencies, and state and local bodies have been wrestling with the constitutionality of prayers that are conducted at official functions. Invocational practices have often been shackled under the mistaken belief that public prayer, particularly when the name of Jesus is invoked, is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. On Monday, the Supreme Court cleared away much of the legal smog that has confounded that issue. In a remarkably straightforward decision, the Court ruled that prayers by local clergy before the start of a town meeting are legal, even if most of those doing the praying are Christians, and even if Christ is explicitly named in the invocation.

In the 5-4 decision authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court held that the Town of Greece in New York was within its rights when it resorted to a local clergy directory to invite Town religious leaders to sign up to lead short prayers before the commencement of the Town meetings. The complainants who filed suit to close down that practice tried to advance the reasoning of the lower court's ruling; the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New York, had held that the "steady drumbeat" of Christianity infused in the prayers had unconstitutionally aligned the Town with a Christian viewpoint. But the Supreme Court disagreed, and rightly so. The majority opinion pointed to the historical evidence supporting such prayers, starting with the Founding, and noted that "the Congress that drafted the First Amendment would have been accustomed to invocations containing explicitly religious themes of the sort [the complaining parties] find objectionable." It also rejected the nonsensical notion that the Town needed to search beyond the town limits of the predominantly Christian community just to scrounge up non-Christians to pray in order to legitimize its practice. Simply put, imposing such a mandatory "diversity of religious views," the Court said, would likely create exactly the kind of entanglement in religion that is forbidden by the First Amendment.

There are subtler, but equally important residuals from this Supreme Court decision. The Court put largely to rest the assumption by many radical secularists that "ecumenical prayers," in other words, bland, non-sectarian invocations, are the only ones that are constitutionally permitted at official public events. I was also delighted to see the Justices criticize (and reject) the faulty "endorsement" rule that had been advanced particularly by former Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a legal test that would strike down historically-rooted government acknowledgements of faith whenever they are perceived to have "the effect of endorsing a patently Christian message." In sum, the Court said, "Government may not mandate a civil religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred ..." and need not require religious ceremonies in public settings to be reduced to only "vague and artificial" references to God.

There are limits to the Court's ruling, however. For instance, the Court suggested that the Town of Greece ruling might not apply to public schools, where acknowledgments of God can be restricted because of the risk of implicit "coercion" of students. But despite that, the Court has done us a further service. Laced throughout this ruling is the idea, dating back to our Founders, that a forbidden "establishment of religion" occurs only when citizens are actually compelled by government, indeed coerced, to engage in some religious practice against their conscience. Thus, public and official acknowledgments of the reality of God, and even the divinity of Christ, are not forbidden. I can almost hear the distant echoes of the Founding Fathers cheering that.             

By Craig Parshall
Senior Vice President & General Counsel, National Religious Broadcasters
Director, John Milton Project for Free Speech    

Click here to read more articles written by Craig Parshall.

Published: May 8, 2014

Latest News

Registration for Proclaim 16 Is Now Open! Register Early and Save!

Registration for the world’s largest annual gathering of Christian media and ministry professionals is now open, and if you register between now and November 1, you can receive an Early Bird discounted rate.

NRB President Calls on Members to Urge Congress to #DefundPP

With Congress set to return from recess on September 8, NRB President & CEO Dr. Jerry A. Johnson is encouraging the association’s members to contact their representatives about defunding the Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) and to utilize their media platforms to urge others to do the same.

Salvation Army Eastern Territory Publishes New Magazine: 'SAConnects'

The Salvation Army’s Eastern Territorial Headquarters has released SAConnects, a new multimedia magazine that is replacing Good News!, Priority!, and Buenas Noticias!

Exhibit Space at Proclaim 16 Available Now! Reserve Yours Today!

Want to place your company or ministry in front of thousands of decision-makers in an ever-growing industry? Then consider exhibiting at Proclaim 16, the NRB International Christian Media Convention.

Dedication of The Coming King Sculpture Prayer Garden Set for Sept. 13

On September 13, The Coming King Foundation (TCKF) will dedicate its evangelistic Sculpture Prayer Garden in Kerrville, TX, which has been 14 years in the making.

Net Neutrality Court Battle Advances

The legal battle to halt the FCC’s most recent “Open Internet” order advanced in recent weeks with the filing of briefs before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.

ERLC President Russell Moore Releases New Book: 'Onward'

Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, the latest book by ERLC President Dr. Russell Moore, was released on August 1.

Committee Expands Planned Parenthood Investigation

Leaders of the powerful House Energy & Commerce Committee recently announced an expansion of their investigation spurred by undercover videos that show key Planned Parenthood officials describing and negotiating the sale of aborted babies’ body parts.

‘Mission: Mongolia’ Campaign Far Exceeds Goal to Fund Three New FM Stations

NRB member organizations Reach Beyond, Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC), and Moody Global Ministries combined their efforts last month and raised $311,519 to fund equipment to start radio stations in three major cities in Mongolia that do not have access to Christian radio.

Guidelines International Ministries Plants Legacy Radio Station in the Balkans

Guidelines International Ministries has planted a Legacy Radio Station in the Balkans, partnering with Media 7 Albania.

More News