With prayer case, the Supreme Court goes to the heart of the First Amendment matter

When the U.S. Supreme Court declared legislative prayers constitutional 30 years ago, the justices sent a convoluted message to legislatures, … Continued

When the U.S. Supreme Court declared legislative prayers constitutional 30 years ago, the justices sent a convoluted message to legislatures, city councils and other government bodies: You may open your sessions with prayer, a tradition that dates back to the founding of the Republic. But don’t exploit the prayer opportunity “to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” (Marsh v. Chambers, 1983)

Since nobody can agree on what that means, Americans have spent the last three decades debating and litigating who gets to pray and what they can say without running afoul of the Court’s murky guidance.

May 20, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case, Town of Greece, NY v. Galloway,
which may finally clear up some of the confusion surrounding the constitutionality of saying prayers at the opening of a government meeting.

For years, the Town Board in Greece, New York arranged for local clergy to begin the board’s public meetings with prayer. Although the town occasionally invited non-Christians to pray, the vast majority of the prayers were from the majority faith.

Last year, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the town’s prayer policy unconstitutional because “the process for selecting prayer-givers virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint.”

In their appeal to the Supreme Court, town officials argue that there was no discrimination in determining who got to pray and nothing was done to use the prayer opportunity to promote or denigrate any religion.

Whether the Greece Town Board wins or loses, the Court’s decision in the case may provide some answers to the messy questions the Court left unanswered 30 years ago in Marsh:

Must government officials require all invocations to be non-sectarian prayers so as to avoid proselytizing? Does it pass constitutional muster to rotate prayer-givers among local faith communities? If most of the prayer volunteers are Christian, is the town or city required to recruit other faith representatives to ensure a greater variety of prayers?

Of course, attempting to answer these questions will likely lead to more questions, such as if and when to include the one fourth of the U.S. population with no religious affiliation.

As if on cue, a few days after the Supreme Court agreed to hear the Greece, NY case, an atheist member of the Arizona House of Representatives gave the “daily prayer” by giving a message that wasn’t prayer.

The prayer-free invocation prompted considerable debate, including outrage from a Christian lawmaker who insisted on having two prayers the next day to make up for the missing prayer.

The brouhaha in Arizona illustrates the complexity of the issue before the Supreme Court, a complexity the Court itself created when it ruled legislative prayers constitutional 30 years ago.

Short of reversing Marsh by prohibiting opening prayers at legislative sessions (which this Court is very unlikely to do), the only fair alternative would appear to be a “prayer policy” that includes everyone by rotating among the bewildering variety of faiths and beliefs represented in the most religiously diverse society in the world.

Or the Court could mandate general, universal “to-whom-it-may-concern” prayers that, in the end, satisfy no one (and exclude the nonreligious).

What the Supreme Court must not do, however, is allow any government body to endorse one faith over others by opening meetings with Christian prayers week after week.

If “no establishment” under the First Amendment means anything, it means at least this:

The government may not take sides in religion.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the Freedom Forum First Amendment Center, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum.

  • nanettetron

    Our Country, the United States of America was founded on the Principles and Character of God.
    Prayer and love and morality should always have a place in our lives and in government too.
    God save us all . and God bless the U.S.A.

  • plattitudes

    I still can’t believe the uproar over the atheist’s message in Arizona, it seemed to me an appropriate substitute for prayer for that portion of the population. My own city’s council solved this among themselves in the late 80s–each year they sample the population to get an idea of religious preferences. (Last year that came back roughly 40% ‘Mainstream’ Christian, 20% Catholic, 10% Jewish, 10% Mormon, 5% Islam, 5% Hindu and 10% of the ‘Nones’.) Then they issued invitations to open council meetings, public occasions, etc. based on those numbers. So although there was a preponderance of Christian prayers, we had the opportunity to hear from all groups (we even had a Wiccan back in the late 90s) The Nones, also consistently thanked the council for their inclusion, but simply asked the meetings begin with good feelings and good faith efforts, but without any other invocation. It’s worked well for us for 25 years.

  • shanti2

    “God” bless the USA and all people everywhere, but ending a prayer at a government meeting with “in Jesus name”. not only violates the constitution it is a deliberate and insensitive attempt to impose Christianity on everyone present. It is proselytizing and nothing less.

  • gladerunner

    Prayer should indeed have a place in your life, if that is what you believe in. If you do not believe in the power of prayer, then it has absolutely no place. The Government is not an individual with a single mind or belief, it is an appointed managing body of diverse individuals with diverse belief systems, managing the tasks allotted to it by we, the people, all of us, not just the believers, not just any one minority or majority.
    The great thing about our country, created by people who knew first hand the vile corruptibility of church/state entanglements, is that it decided to NOT establish a state favored religion, that it should be left up to the individual people to believe as they each best saw fit.
    This is why, regardless of what the individual framers might have themselves believed, they left out of the constitution any connection, any linkage between the new nation’s government and any particular faith/denomination/deity. EXCEPT for the first amendment which was pretty clear.
    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ”
    That, simply put, meant the new government would be hands-off in terms of religion. It meant that the government itself was beholden to ‘We the people’ and all matters of faith were left to those individuals. That is what is meant by ‘freedom’. The absence of a governing body telling us when/how/where and what to worship, all of us, not just you.
    They established a government to handle the mundane and messy earthly chores, not heavenly ones.
    It is not the place, the mandate, nor the need of any government body to be singling out any religion, even a very popular one, for inclusion in the official affairs of a free and open society.
    Don’t you want freedom?

  • OutofmanyONE

    Religion is a liberty that a America can practice or not practice but no religion can in any way be forced on a American. No religion of any type is part of our government what so ever. The IN GOD WE TRUST applies to any God and was politically made as a saying. All religions must comply with civil laws which must be compatible with our supreme law, the Constitution.

  • OutofmanyONE

    Nanettetron, Not in the American government. Read what Thomas Jefferson said on religion. P.S. Not all religion have your God.

  • NewCovenant

    If someone wants to pray or otherwise worship, they can do so in their home or place of worship with others who also wish to do so. If you want to hold a national day of prayer, then participate in it in your home or place of worship. But DO NOT do it in any publicly-owned building, including the halls of Congress, the state legislatures, or county and city government offices. There is no need for any prayer to be said before any taxpayer-supported government agency or body begins its sessions. This “tradition” needs to stop.

    It’s also past time for “In God We Trust” to be removed from our money and for “one nation, under God” to be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. These, along with the National Day of Prayer and prayers before Congress, legislatures, or county and city governing agencies begin their meetings are relics of the 1950’s when the nation was trembling in fear of the Soviet Union lobbing their nukes at us and Joe McCarthy was conducting his witch hunt. The United States of America IS NOT a theocracy. If you want to live in a theocracy, move to someplace like Iran.

  • cricket44

    That person who protested ought to be embarrassed and ashamed. There was *nothing* wrong with the atheist’s message. And I’m a Christian.

  • jarandeh

    And I wish we could get back to our ORIGINAL motto, adopted by our founders. The one you have wisely chosen as your handle . . .

  • jarandeh

    Here’s an idea:

    When a civic meeting is called to order, how about you dispense with the posturing and JUST GET TO WORK. Is that so hard?

  • vijayk

    The 1st Amendment does read that “government shall make no LAW respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. It seems to me that any mtg. whether it Civil, Social or Religious is free to exercise there faith as that particular group/mtg. see fit. Any attempt by the government to establish for them or deny them the opportunity to pray is Unconstitutional. It boggles my mind that anyone would take offense to a person asking their God for guidance and wisdom to lead.

  • vijayk

    The 1st Amendment does read that “government shall make no LAW respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. It seems to me that any mtg. whether it Civil, Social or Religious is free to exercise there faith as that particular group/mtg. see fit. Any attempt by the government to establish for them or deny them the opportunity to pray is Unconstitutional. It boggles my mind that anyone would take offense to a person asking their God for guidance and wisdom to lead.

  • jarandeh

    Would you be OK with someone opening the meeting with a prayer to Satan?

    Or Oden? Or Amun Ra?

    We’d have to. Then we’d have to come up with a rotation system to make sure everyone had a turn. That would probably require a committee or something to keep everything fair and organized.

    Or you could just not have a public prayer. You could pray to yourself, if you wish. And you could get on with the goldarn meeting – which is why you’re there in the first place, right?


    Why does any public meeting need to open with any kind of prayer at all? They aren’t in a church.

  • jarandeh

    The meeting should open with . . . the meeting!

  • gladerunner

    ” It seems to me that any mtg. whether it Civil, Social or Religious is free to exercise there faith as that particular group/mtg. see fit”
    Aside from the almost forgivable improper word usage there/their:
    A ‘group’ does not necessarily have a single belief system in non-church meetings. Do you take a count of hands, by denomination/religion? And then come up with a prayer that is 35% Pentecostal, 40% Catholic, 4% Jewish and .5% each for the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, etc?
    It is this naive, arrogant narcissism of the majority faith that they think everyone in the room has the same belief system as they do.
    ‘They’ in a non-religious setting, i.e. an open planning and zoning commission meeting, is non-determined. Therefore it is folly/presumptuous to assume that everyone in the meeting is of like mind.
    Besides, municipal, state, federal elected and appointed officials are there to provide services for ALL the people in their constituency, not just those that sniff the same incense.
    No one on this side is trying to abolish an individual’s right to pray, to whatever they believe in. But to insist/demand from the official dais that everyone rise and respect their own public utterances to one and only one flavor of religion is not the same thing, at all.
    Pray all you want to, in your home, your church, from a mountaintop, in your car or your cubicle, just not as an official, public statement of elected office.

  • Joel Hardman

    Government officials are free to ask whatever god they believe in for guidance. When they try to do it in an official capacity, however, they’re asking on behalf of the people they serve. That’s a problem. Do you want government officials making religious decisions on your behalf?

  • larryclyons

    the US was not founded as a Christian nation. In the first treaty of Tripoli it was made very clear:
    As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,—as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of Mussulmen [Muslims],—and as the said States never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Mohammedan] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

    Given that many of the founders were still in Congress and voted to unanimously ratified the treaty. If they had disagreed don’t you think they would have registered an objection?

  • vijayk

    The God I serve tells me the Greatest thing I can do is Love Him, the 2nd Greatest thing that I can do is Love my neighbor. All of His commands are summed up in these 2. A prayer to the Lord God Almighty is a request better yet a plea to Him to help me fulfill his commands which are GOOD not for some but for all. I just can’t see what the problem is with that.
    That being said I totally agree that there should be no “demand” to pray in any capacity but it should be left completely up to the “Free will” of the group as they agree amongst each other what, where, how, when and how often to pray or not.

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