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

NRB Concerned by Call for Hate Speech Proceeding

A petition to the FCC challenging a broadcaster license alleges “hate speech” and calls for a FCC hearing on the subject. Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, President & CEO of NRB, wrote to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to...

City of Houston Subpoenas Sermons

NRB and many others were alarmed this week by the City of Houston’s subpoena of local pastors’ church sermons. “This inquisition by the City of Houston is unconstitutional,” declared Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, President & CEO of NRB.

Thousands Gather to Pray for Washington

On Columbus Day, I was pleased to gather with thousands of Christians from churches around the Washington, DC area to pray for this capital city.

FCC Calls for Input on LPTV

The FCC recently declared that it is suspending deadlines for construction of new digital low power television (LPTV) stations, and similarly stated its intent to postpone the 2015 deadline for...

NRB to Debut Film & Entertainment Summit in 2015

NRB is launching the Film & Entertainment Summit at the NRB 2015 International Christian Media Convention in Nashville, TN.

Don't Miss Early Bird Rates for the NRB15 Int’l Christian Media Convention!

Registration is open for the NRB 2015 International Christian Media Convention, to be held February 23-26, 2015, in Nashville, TN. But to take advantage of the Early Bird Registration discounts and save up to $200, you’ll need to register by November 15, 2014.

NRB Digital Media Summit to Return in 2015 Bigger and Better

After an incredibly successful debut earlier this year, the NRB Digital Media Summit will be returning in 2015 with a star-studded list of speakers who excel in Web, mobile, social media, and content strategy.

Renewing Your Mind with R.C. Sproul Celebrates 20 Years on Air

Dr. R.C. Sproul and Ligonier Ministries are celebrating two decades of Renewing Your Mind on the radio.

ERLC to Host National Conference on Homosexuality and the Future of Marriage: Oct. 27-29

The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention is set to host a national conference on the issue of homosexuality and the future of marriage later this month at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, TN.

Chip Ingram’s Living on the Edge Ministry Joins Effort to Reach U.S. Prisoners

Living on the Edge recently got behind an effort to stream ministry materials and audio files to prisoners throughout the United States by providing audio content from the ministry’s CEO & Teaching Pastor, Chip Ingram.

More News