Supreme Court Upholds Public Prayer

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week in a 5-4 decision that the Town of Greece (a suburb of Rochester, NY) had not violated the Constitution by its practice of beginning town meetings with a public prayer. The majority of Justices affirmed the long established history of such prayers and rejected the notion that they were in some way coercive on individual citizens.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, who penned the Court’s ruling, declared, “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.” Justice Kennedy continued, “That many appreciate these acknowledgments of the divine in our public institutions does not suggest that those who disagree are compelled to join the expression or approve its content.”

In his review of the decision, Craig Parshall, NRB Senior Vice President and General Counsel, highlighted, “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.” Indeed, citing a 1983 decision upholding legislative prayer, the Court stated:

“Marsh” nowhere suggested that the constitutionality of legislative prayer turns on the neutrality of its content…. Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy.

This Supreme Court decision reverses the previous ruling of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which had charged that the Town of Greece’s prayers were unconstitutional for being predominantly Christian in content.  NRB member Alliance Defending Freedom was key to the legal team appealing the case.  Celebrating the final verdict, ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman said, “Opening public meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution themselves practiced. Speech censors should have no power to silence volunteers who pray for their communities just as the Founders did.”

 By Aaron Mercer, Vice President of Government Relations

Published: May 9, 2014