Coming to the Supreme Court: the politics of public prayer

The constitutionality of legislative prayers returns to the Supreme Court after 30 years.

On November 6, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway – a case that revisits the volatile issue of public prayers in government settings.

It’s been 30 years since the Court upheld the constitutionality of legislative prayers in Marsh v. Chambers, citing the “unbroken history” of such prayers dating back to the founding of the nation.

According to the majority opinion in Marsh, legislatures, city councils and other government bodies may open their sessions with prayer, as long as the prayer isn’t used to “proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.”

But rather than ending the fight over public prayers, the Court’s murky guidance in Marsh has caused widespread confusion and conflict over who gets to pray and what they can say. What has been ruled legal by a lower court in one part of the country has been struck down as illegal in another.

Now a case involving the “prayer policy” of the Town Board in Greece, New York gives the justices an opportunity to clear up the mess created by Marsh.

At issue is the town’s practice of soliciting volunteers to be the “chaplain of the month,” free to determine the content of his or her prayers. In a decade of prayer giving at Town Board meetings, Christian clergy have offered the vast majority of the prayers — frequently “in the name of Christ.”

Does Greece’s prayer policy result in government endorsement of one religion over others, as critics charge? Or does the fact that prayer-givers are volunteers make the prayers constitutional, even if most of the prayers are from one faith? Do legislative prayers need to be “non-sectarian” to avoid proselytizing?

After the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the policy violates the Establishment clause of the First Amendment, the town appealed to the Supreme Court.

Short of overturning Marsh and ruling all legislative prayers unconstitutional (a very unlikely outcome), none of the answers the High Court can give to these questions will end the battle over legislative prayer.

That’s because the fight isn’t really about prayer; it’s about power and politics.

Most of the litigation challenging legislative prayer comes out of communities where members of the majority faith are determined to keep the practice. Although they must allow people of other religions to participate or risk losing the prayers, they often find creative ways to ensure that most of the prayers reflect their faith.

For proponents of legislative prayer, the issue seems to be less about the act of prayer and more about the symbolic act of re-affirming America’s dependence on the God of the Bible. For these Americans, ending legislative prayer would be tantamount to re-defining the nation.

If the issue were really about providing opportunities for authentic prayer, the solution would be creating a moment of silence where each person could pray (or not) as conscience dictates. The answer would not be government-sponsored prayers that either impose one God on everyone or offer “universal” supplications to no God in particular.

People of faith (any and all faiths) who care about authentic prayer should be first in line to get the government out of the prayer business. The integrity and autonomy of religion is undermined when government officials determine who gets to pray and who does not – or when prayers are “proselytizing” and when they are not.

No matter how the Supreme Court re-draws the guidelines for government-sponsored prayer, the problem remains that government entanglement with prayer always has been and always will be a threat to religious freedom and a recipe for conflict and division.

Elizabeth Tenety
Written by

  • IslandAtheist

    If citizens and government officials are being requested to participate in a religious ritual by there government, then it’s a violation of the No Religious Test Clause.

  • IslandAtheist

    If citizens and government officials are being requested to participate in a religious ritual by there government, then it’s a violation of the No Religious Test Clause.

  • IslandAtheist

    *their

  • IslandAtheist

    *their

  • sciencelady1

    …well written.
    If the outcome is on the side of liberty and freedom for all, then it must be NO prayer.
    Unfortunately, this will unleash an evangelical backlash.

  • sciencelady1

    …well written.
    If the outcome is on the side of liberty and freedom for all, then it must be NO prayer.
    Unfortunately, this will unleash an evangelical backlash.

  • Joel Hardman

    I agree with this article’s conclusions. I’m always surprised and saddened by the lengths many religious people will go to in order to try to keep government prayer and religious practice. Instead of pretending that prayers and Christmas trees aren’t religious, why not be thankful that you’re free to practice your religion as a private citizen and do so fervently?

  • Joel Hardman

    I agree with this article’s conclusions. I’m always surprised and saddened by the lengths many religious people will go to in order to try to keep government prayer and religious practice. Instead of pretending that prayers and Christmas trees aren’t religious, why not be thankful that you’re free to practice your religion as a private citizen and do so fervently?

  • SimonTemplar

    I think the NSA spying on the Pope and the other Cardinals is a bigger threat to separation of Church and State, more than some simple prayer offered in a public assembly.

  • SimonTemplar

    I think the NSA spying on the Pope and the other Cardinals is a bigger threat to separation of Church and State, more than some simple prayer offered in a public assembly.

  • leibowde84

    How on earth does spying on the Church Hierarchy (just as they spy on everyone else … not singled out at all) effect the seperation of Church and State. If anything, it affirms it. They treated the Pope just like any other leader.

    Governmental prayer disgusts me … and I’m a Catholic who prays all the time. It is most definitely the Government establishing that it is under the Christian God.

  • leibowde84

    How on earth does spying on the Church Hierarchy (just as they spy on everyone else … not singled out at all) effect the seperation of Church and State. If anything, it affirms it. They treated the Pope just like any other leader.

    Governmental prayer disgusts me … and I’m a Catholic who prays all the time. It is most definitely the Government establishing that it is under the Christian God.

  • leibowde84

    I for one will never vote for anyone who thinks that prayer in the public sphere is acceptable. This is pathetic and disgusting. And, ironic since the same people who claim to “protect the constitution” are publicly violating it because “they don’t like that part of it.” Disgusting.

  • leibowde84

    I for one will never vote for anyone who thinks that prayer in the public sphere is acceptable. This is pathetic and disgusting. And, ironic since the same people who claim to “protect the constitution” are publicly violating it because “they don’t like that part of it.” Disgusting.

  • drmwlau

    Militant atheists and secularists want the pledge of allegiance to be unconstitutional. They want the currency to be unconstitutional. They want Christmas as a federal holiday to be unconstitutional. They want the Lincoln Memorial to be unconstitutional. They want inaugural traditions to be unconstitutional. They want Article VII (“Year of our Lord”) of the Constitution to be unconstitutional. They want historic war memorials to be unconstitutional. They want all public events and spaces to be pristine from an atheist point of view. The difference between what they want and official atheism is microscopic.

  • drmwlau

    Militant atheists and secularists want the pledge of allegiance to be unconstitutional. They want the currency to be unconstitutional. They want Christmas as a federal holiday to be unconstitutional. They want the Lincoln Memorial to be unconstitutional. They want inaugural traditions to be unconstitutional. They want Article VII (“Year of our Lord”) of the Constitution to be unconstitutional. They want historic war memorials to be unconstitutional. They want all public events and spaces to be pristine from an atheist point of view. The difference between what they want and official atheism is microscopic.

  • Catken1

    Yes, because not being forced or pressured by one’s government to pray, or told that Christianity is the most important religion and the rest of us are second-class people, is “official atheism.”
    No one’s arguing about most of that stuff, anyway. Just the stuff that pushes one religion’s public prayer on citizens as though it were superior to other sorts of prayer, or no prayer.
    Maybe if your children were taught to say “one nation, under Goddess,” or “one nation, under Gods,” or “one nation, under no God,” and taught to believe that, say, the Hindu creation myth had the (unearned) status of a scientific theory (but not yours), or if you had to view your public officials jumping over each other to declare their atheism (rather than to push their piety), or if government events regularly included public prayers made loudly to Shiva or Allah or Freyja, with your god/s pointedly excluded, or public affirmations of atheism, you’d understand.
    As it is, all we get is the sulky, whiny pout of the privileged who feel ENTITLED to their privilege, and don’t want to have to treat others fairly, as equals.

  • Catken1

    Yes, because not being forced or pressured by one’s government to pray, or told that Christianity is the most important religion and the rest of us are second-class people, is “official atheism.”
    No one’s arguing about most of that stuff, anyway. Just the stuff that pushes one religion’s public prayer on citizens as though it were superior to other sorts of prayer, or no prayer.
    Maybe if your children were taught to say “one nation, under Goddess,” or “one nation, under Gods,” or “one nation, under no God,” and taught to believe that, say, the Hindu creation myth had the (unearned) status of a scientific theory (but not yours), or if you had to view your public officials jumping over each other to declare their atheism (rather than to push their piety), or if government events regularly included public prayers made loudly to Shiva or Allah or Freyja, with your god/s pointedly excluded, or public affirmations of atheism, you’d understand.
    As it is, all we get is the sulky, whiny pout of the privileged who feel ENTITLED to their privilege, and don’t want to have to treat others fairly, as equals.

  • Counterww

    Basically you are a crybaby catkin, and just cannot stand the fact that people believe, and that our country was founded much on religious Christian principles. That is what is boils down to.

  • Counterww

    Basically you are a crybaby catkin, and just cannot stand the fact that people believe, and that our country was founded much on religious Christian principles. That is what is boils down to.

  • Counterww

    Listening to a christian prayer is not participating. ludicrous assertions.

  • Counterww

    Listening to a christian prayer is not participating. ludicrous assertions.

  • nkri401

    Would yoy care to listen to the Satanic prayer?

  • nkri401

    Would yoy care to listen to the Satanic prayer?

  • nkri401

    Pray in the closet so that no one will think that you are a Pharisee, trying to look pious.

  • nkri401

    Pray in the closet so that no one will think that you are a Pharisee, trying to look pious.

  • pumped

    Excellent article!

  • pumped

    Excellent article!

  • nkri401

    I guess if you complain that you are told to use a separate drinking fountain, you are a “crybaby”.

    Yes siree!!

  • nkri401

    I guess if you complain that you are told to use a separate drinking fountain, you are a “crybaby”.

    Yes siree!!

  • smt123

    Counterww

    Please read some history. The US was founded on Enlightenment principles, not religious Christian ones. Please tell me where in the bible it says anything about representative democracy… trial by a jury of your peers… freedom of the press… the three branches of government.

    Yeah, didn’t think so.

  • smt123

    Counterww

    Please read some history. The US was founded on Enlightenment principles, not religious Christian ones. Please tell me where in the bible it says anything about representative democracy… trial by a jury of your peers… freedom of the press… the three branches of government.

    Yeah, didn’t think so.

  • Catken1

    I don’t like lies, and the idea that this was founded as a Christian nation is a lie. Pure and simple. This nation was founded by people who knew what havoc religious warfare and religiously-dominated governments caused, and wanted to avoid that as much as possible by keeping government out of religion and religion out of government.
    I don’t care if people believe – but I don’t want to be pressured to pray to deities I don’t believe in, just as I’m sure you don’t. I can stand by my own beliefs myself; I don’t need government to tell me when and how to pray.
    But of course, you have nothing but insults and lies to your name, no actual arguments.

  • Catken1

    I don’t like lies, and the idea that this was founded as a Christian nation is a lie. Pure and simple. This nation was founded by people who knew what havoc religious warfare and religiously-dominated governments caused, and wanted to avoid that as much as possible by keeping government out of religion and religion out of government.
    I don’t care if people believe – but I don’t want to be pressured to pray to deities I don’t believe in, just as I’m sure you don’t. I can stand by my own beliefs myself; I don’t need government to tell me when and how to pray.
    But of course, you have nothing but insults and lies to your name, no actual arguments.

  • larryclyons

    The U.S. Constitution is a wholly secular document. It contains no mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ. In fact, the Constitution refers to religion only twice in the First Amendment, which bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and in Article VI, which prohibits “religious tests” for public office. Both of these provisions are evidence that the country was not founded as officially Christian.

  • larryclyons

    The U.S. Constitution is a wholly secular document. It contains no mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ. In fact, the Constitution refers to religion only twice in the First Amendment, which bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and in Article VI, which prohibits “religious tests” for public office. Both of these provisions are evidence that the country was not founded as officially Christian.

  • larryclyons

    How about the Summerian prayer ritual, it involves public sex and a human sacrifice. That would pack these boring council meetings months in advance.

  • larryclyons

    How about the Summerian prayer ritual, it involves public sex and a human sacrifice. That would pack these boring council meetings months in advance.

  • nkri401

    This case will be more interesting as a gauge of how far Right wing SCOTUS is.

  • nkri401

    This case will be more interesting as a gauge of how far Right wing SCOTUS is.

  • CCNL

    Free Will and Future are inherent to all the thinking beings in the Universe. This being the case, it is not possible to alter life with prayers. Statistically, your request might come true but it is simply the result of the variability/randomness of Nature..

    So put down your rosaries and prayer beads and stop worshiping/revering cows or bowing to Mecca five times a day. Instead work hard at your job, take care of aging parents, volunteer at a soup kitchen, donate to charities and the poor and continue to follow the proper rules of living as gracious and good human beings.

  • CCNL

    Free Will and Future are inherent to all the thinking beings in the Universe. This being the case, it is not possible to alter life with prayers. Statistically, your request might come true but it is simply the result of the variability/randomness of Nature..

    So put down your rosaries and prayer beads and stop worshiping/revering cows or bowing to Mecca five times a day. Instead work hard at your job, take care of aging parents, volunteer at a soup kitchen, donate to charities and the poor and continue to follow the proper rules of living as gracious and good human beings.

  • pumped

    Thank you for your straight-up, positive take on life.
    Please allow me mine.

  • pumped

    Thank you for your straight-up, positive take on life.
    Please allow me mine.

  • itsthedax

    Dear Religionists, You are free to pray any time you want, anywhere you want, for anything you want, and to any deity you choose.

    You just can’t make it mandatory to join your prayers, or use taxpayer-funded facilities or employees to promote your religion.

    So knock yourselves out.

  • itsthedax

    Dear Religionists, You are free to pray any time you want, anywhere you want, for anything you want, and to any deity you choose.

    You just can’t make it mandatory to join your prayers, or use taxpayer-funded facilities or employees to promote your religion.

    So knock yourselves out.

  • DRJJJ

    In God we trust on our coins, One Nation under God in our National pleage, so help me God is sworn 1000s of time every day around this country and Congress opens in prayer to name a few reasons there should be NO PROBLEM with any public prayer of reverence for God! Secularization of church and sure hasn’t done us any favors-turn on the news! Only God!

  • DRJJJ

    In God we trust on our coins, One Nation under God in our National pleage, so help me God is sworn 1000s of time every day around this country and Congress opens in prayer to name a few reasons there should be NO PROBLEM with any public prayer of reverence for God! Secularization of church and sure hasn’t done us any favors-turn on the news! Only God!

  • Catken1

    Yeah, I turn on the news, and see a country where it’s no longer acceptable to beat your wife or lynch a teenage boy for whistling at a white woman, where a Muslim or Jewish or Hindu kid can attend public schools without being pushed to go against his or her parents’ faith, where we’re finally beginning to see that gay people’s families deserve the same support and care as any others, etc.
    I also see that the politicians who preen themselves on their religious devotion are also the ones who care the least for the poor, whose states are faltering badly, and who spend their time making symbolic votes against health care and giving tax breaks to multinational corporations who ship jobs overseas, and who claim against all the evidence that climate change is just a myth and we need not do anything about it.

  • Catken1

    Yeah, I turn on the news, and see a country where it’s no longer acceptable to beat your wife or lynch a teenage boy for whistling at a white woman, where a Muslim or Jewish or Hindu kid can attend public schools without being pushed to go against his or her parents’ faith, where we’re finally beginning to see that gay people’s families deserve the same support and care as any others, etc.
    I also see that the politicians who preen themselves on their religious devotion are also the ones who care the least for the poor, whose states are faltering badly, and who spend their time making symbolic votes against health care and giving tax breaks to multinational corporations who ship jobs overseas, and who claim against all the evidence that climate change is just a myth and we need not do anything about it.

  • leibowde84

    Turn on the news and you will see that it is obvious that a lack of separation between church and state in other countries leads to violence and unrest. So … maybe you are watching the wrong news. The Establishment Clause has kept our country from becoming a theocracy … probably the most evil form of Government that exists.

  • leibowde84

    Turn on the news and you will see that it is obvious that a lack of separation between church and state in other countries leads to violence and unrest. So … maybe you are watching the wrong news. The Establishment Clause has kept our country from becoming a theocracy … probably the most evil form of Government that exists.

  • leibowde84

    According to the Constitution’s anti-establishment clause, the government MUST be atheist.

  • leibowde84

    According to the Constitution’s anti-establishment clause, the government MUST be atheist.

  • David Stroud

    Catken1, anyone can express their religious beliefs, even our leaders as it is their right & since I am not one who pretends to be God, as you seem to do,I refuse to question their devotion & judge them falsely. The scripture covers this. Check it out.. Care the least for the poor because they fight against an excuse for health care?. You better learn what Obamacare is all about before you think it is about anything but denying health care for everyone unless the government approves! Power is its goal & nothing more. A stooge could formulate a better, more coherent approach to improving health care than Obama has proven to be inept at! I can choose my own health care better than a bunch of bureaucrats!! Obama lied, if you haven’t heard, about keeping insurance policies & doctors. Now he’s putting a spin on what he said, something he has typically done: LIE!! And who’s made symbolic votes against real health care? Tax breaks to wealthy corporations? Loopholes need to be dealt with but not in a knee-jerk way! Guess who’s sending jobs overseas & has more of its workforce overseas than here at home: GENERAL ELECTRIC, headed by none other than Obama’s chosen job czar, Jeffrey Emmelt, CEO of GE!! Climate change? Not a myth since it has been going on throughout the life of our planet! Only MAN-MADE climate change is the myth which is giving Obama a false cause: killing the coal industry costing thousands of jobs & setting the stage for electric bills to skyrocket. Most knowledgeable scientists have proven that CO2 is not the problem, just those who choose to belong to mindless ideas & vote for those causing misery to everyone, including the middle claass as well as the poor!

  • David Stroud

    Catken1, anyone can express their religious beliefs, even our leaders as it is their right & since I am not one who pretends to be God, as you seem to do,I refuse to question their devotion & judge them falsely. The scripture covers this. Check it out.. Care the least for the poor because they fight against an excuse for health care?. You better learn what Obamacare is all about before you think it is about anything but denying health care for everyone unless the government approves! Power is its goal & nothing more. A stooge could formulate a better, more coherent approach to improving health care than Obama has proven to be inept at! I can choose my own health care better than a bunch of bureaucrats!! Obama lied, if you haven’t heard, about keeping insurance policies & doctors. Now he’s putting a spin on what he said, something he has typically done: LIE!! And who’s made symbolic votes against real health care? Tax breaks to wealthy corporations? Loopholes need to be dealt with but not in a knee-jerk way! Guess who’s sending jobs overseas & has more of its workforce overseas than here at home: GENERAL ELECTRIC, headed by none other than Obama’s chosen job czar, Jeffrey Emmelt, CEO of GE!! Climate change? Not a myth since it has been going on throughout the life of our planet! Only MAN-MADE climate change is the myth which is giving Obama a false cause: killing the coal industry costing thousands of jobs & setting the stage for electric bills to skyrocket. Most knowledgeable scientists have proven that CO2 is not the problem, just those who choose to belong to mindless ideas & vote for those causing misery to everyone, including the middle claass as well as the poor!

  • David Stroud

    Absolutely no one has been in favor of forcing others to observe their religious beliefs. This is a ruse for moronic non-believers who want a secular society. And it is not un-constitutional to pray in public facilities just because a court says so. The Supreme Court was irresponsible in not shooting down Obamacare!They prove themselves wrong any time they get a chance! (Our founders even held religious services in the Capital.) Our country was founded on belief in a Higher Power & it has never come close to creating a theocracy, another ruse to try to make our country a secular mess with requirements, not regarding religious observance, but just the opposite!

  • David Stroud

    Absolutely no one has been in favor of forcing others to observe their religious beliefs. This is a ruse for moronic non-believers who want a secular society. And it is not un-constitutional to pray in public facilities just because a court says so. The Supreme Court was irresponsible in not shooting down Obamacare!They prove themselves wrong any time they get a chance! (Our founders even held religious services in the Capital.) Our country was founded on belief in a Higher Power & it has never come close to creating a theocracy, another ruse to try to make our country a secular mess with requirements, not regarding religious observance, but just the opposite!

  • oodnadatta

    If the Christians need their prayers at public events then there is no reason why other religions should not be given equal time. Let there be prayers also for Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Muslim, Native Americans, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Janis, Afro-American religions, etc, or any other religions practised by Americans.

    If public prayer is good enough for the Christians, then it is good enough for any other religion as well.
    Demand equal time.

  • oodnadatta

    If the Christians need their prayers at public events then there is no reason why other religions should not be given equal time. Let there be prayers also for Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Muslim, Native Americans, Zoroastrians, Sikhs, Janis, Afro-American religions, etc, or any other religions practised by Americans.

    If public prayer is good enough for the Christians, then it is good enough for any other religion as well.
    Demand equal time.

  • Catken1

    No, the government must stay out of the question entirely. I would be as opposed to a legislature taking time to declare that there is no God before every session as I would be to Christian prayers. It is not government’s place to make that choice for any citizen.

  • Catken1

    No, the government must stay out of the question entirely. I would be as opposed to a legislature taking time to declare that there is no God before every session as I would be to Christian prayers. It is not government’s place to make that choice for any citizen.

  • Evan Ross

    Public prayer is offensive to me. I am an Atheist and I like being GOD free. Every where I go I am exposed to this public prayer. In light of all the politically correct actions of late, public prayer is politically incorrect and should be abolished, or deemed illegal. Political Correctness is championed by religions to get what they want. Welcome to the other side of the coin. Stop all of this praying to…..what/which…..GOD…..Good Luck with that. You Christians don’t let Muslims pray at ball games and graduations ,do you? Fair for one, fair for all.