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 President Supports Senator Cruz on Israel Following IDC Event

Dr. Jerry A. Johnson, President & CEO of NRB, sent a letter today to Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) following the disrespectful treatment he received for expressing solidarity with Israel at a recent “In Defense of Christians” event.

NRB Speaks Out for First Amendment Rights

NRB could not be silent this week in the face of a serious threat to the Bill of Rights being considered by the U.S. Senate.

Rep. Frank Wolf Receives NRB Faith & Freedom Award

At its annual President’s Council Capitol Hill Media Summit this week, NRB presented the 2014 Faith & Freedom Award to Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA).

FCC Oversight Hearing Next Week

Next week, a House panel will conduct an oversight hearing on the FCC, specifically attending to management and spending at the agency.

Former FCC Commissioner Joins New Firm

Former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell (R) this week transitioned from the Hudson Institute to the Washington law firm Wiley Rein.

NRB Congratulates 2014 CMB Award Winners

Three NRB members were recognized with awards from Christian Music Broadcasters (CMB) last week during the annual CMB Networking Dinner held at Momentum 2014.

Reach Thousands of Christian Communicators: Sponsor or Promote at the NRB15 Convention

NRB's International Christian Media Convention represents the world’s largest gathering of Christian communicators and offers organizations unique opportunities to reach thousands of media and ministry professionals.

Pacific Garden Mission Debuts TV Series on TLN

Pacific Garden Mission (PGM), the oldest, continuously-operating, Gospel rescue mission in the country, has begun airing its own show on Total Living Network (TLN).

'Moms’ Night Out' Now Out on DVD

The endearing true-to-life family comedy Moms' Night Out was released on DVD and Blu-ray last week and has been touted as a “must have” for fans of faith-based movies.

NRB to Hold Internet Freedom Panel

A former FCC Commissioner and a top executive from Amazon will be featured in a panel event next week being held by NRB in Washington, DC.

More News