On May 5, 2014, the Supreme Court decided Town of Greece v. Galloway, holding that a town's practice of allowing local clergy of any creed to open town board meetings with a prayer did not violate the Establishment Clause, even though most prayers reflected the Christian tradition.

For 15 years, the town of Greece, New York, opened monthly town board meetings with a prayer given by clergy selected from congregations listed in a local directory. Although the prayer program was open to all creeds, the demographics of the town resulted in predominantly Christian prayers. Citizens who attended the meetings to speak on local issues sued, alleging violation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause and seeking to limit the town to prayers that referred only to a "generic God." The district court upheld the prayer program on summary judgment, finding no impermissible preference for Christianity. The Second Circuit reversed, holding that some aspects of the program conveyed the message that the town was endorsing Christianity.

The Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit. The Establishment Clause must be interpreted by reference to historical practices and understandings, held the Court, and legislative prayer has been recognized since the founding as being consistent with the Establishment Clause. Any test the Court adopts must therefore "acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the Framers and has withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change." The town of Greece's prayer practice fit within this historical practice.

The Court rejected the challengers' argument that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian as inconsistent with history, and also because it would "force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech." The Court also rejected the argument that the town should have to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious diversity. "So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination," the fact that "nearly all of the congregations in town [turn] out to be Christian does not reflect an aversion or bias on the part of town leaders against minority faiths."

The Court was careful, however, to clarify that some constraints still remain on legislative prayer. It noted that legislative prayers have traditionally been used to open proceedings and that they may not be used to denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose.

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II-B. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito joined the opinion in full, and Justices Scalia and Thomas joined except as to Part II-B. Justice Alito filed a concurring opinion, in which Justice Scalia joined. Justice Thomas filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which Justice Scalia joined as to Part II. Justice Breyer filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Kagan filed a dissenting opinion in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor joined.

Download the Opinion of the Court