In the small upstate New York town of Greece, town board meetings begin with a prayer from the local clergyman. Many of the prayers include Christian themes, but not all of those who attend the board meetings identify as members of that religion. In fact, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens took issue with these prayers, which they characterized as “offensive,” “intolerable,” and an affront to a “diverse community.”
Galloway and Stephens, the Respondents, asserted that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment 1 only permitted nonsectarian prayers to be read at governmentally-sponsored events. They asked the courts to intervene. The Supreme Court disagreed and confirmed that legislative prayer does not run afoul of the Constitution – at least in certain situations 2.
The Court explained that, while the purpose of a prayer may not be to advance one religion, it may be used to invoke God’s blessings. “The tradition reflected in Marsh3 permits chaplains to ask their own God for blessings of peace, justice, and freedom that find appreciation among people of all faiths. That a prayer is given in the name of Jesus, Allah, or Jehovah, or that it makes passing reference to religious doctrines, does not remove it from that tradition.”
The Court also rejected the Respondents’ argument that the prayers created public pressure to participate and were unconstitutional. “These ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion. Even those who disagree as to religious doctrine may find common ground in the desire to show respect of the divine in all aspects of their lives and being. Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.”
Prayer is permitted where its purpose is to place a governmental body in solemn and deliberative frame of mind. However, the governmental body should not attempt to control the content of the prayer through prior review, or to exclude prayer givers, regardless of their faith. Importantly, since the governmental body need not to go extreme efforts to ensure a diverse group of clergy, the Town of Greece was not required to invite clergy from congregations outside of its own borders to create the diversity of non-Christian prayer givers.
Here are the facts that encouraged the Court to make its ruling; different facts could result in a different outcome:
- The audience was mainly lawmakers, and not the public.
- There was no indication that participation in the prayer (or lack thereof) could impact the lawmakers’ decisions.
- The citizens were not required to participate in prayer, and/or were not singled out when they did not.
These factors should be analyzed in every situation to determine the legality of public prayer.
Thus, governmental bodies who invite clergy to pray before meetings should allow any and all prayer givers to participate, should never seek active participation from the public, and should not have a religiously-driven purpose.