Constitutional questions regarding the use of prayer to open municipal meetings have often come before the courts, as discussed in a prior blog entry in the public school context. This week, the United States Supreme Court issued an important decision upholding the right of a town board to open its monthly meetings with religious prayer.
In Town of Greece, NY v. Galloway, a town board began inviting local clergymen to deliver an invocation at the start of monthly meetings. Two residents brought suit, alleging the town violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by preferring sectarian Christian prayers above others. They requested an injunction that would limit the town to “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers that referred only to a generic God and would not associate the government with any one faith or belief. The District Court, on summary judgment, upheld the town’s prayer practices. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed the District Court. The U.S. Supreme Court then granted certiorari to decide whether the town’s prayer practices violated the Establishment Clause.
The Supreme Court looked first to its 1983 decision in Marsh v. Chambers, where it upheld the First Amendment right of the Nebraska Legislature to open sessions with a prayer delivered by a chaplain paid from state funds. The Court noted that “Marsh stands for the proposition that it is not necessary to define the precise boundary of the Establishment Clause where history shows that the specific practice is permitted. Any test the Court adopts must acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the Framers and has withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change.”
In the instant case the Court found that inviting a predominately Christian set of ministers to lead the prayer did not violate the Establishment Clause in light of the unique facts. The Court stated, “That nearly all of the congregations in the town turned out to be Christian does not reflect an aversion or bias on the part of the town leaders against minority faiths. So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.”
The Court then looked at whether the town’s practice was distinguishable from Marsh on the grounds that it coerces participation. The Court noted that the principal audience for these invocations is not the public, but the lawmakers themselves. The Court stated that “[t]he analysis would be different if the town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity.” The Court distinguished this case from Lee v. Weisman, a 1994 case which found a religious invocation to be coercive in a school graduation ceremony context.
While this case makes clear that religious prayer is permitted in municipal meetings, it is important to take note of the many caveats and individual facts that may tip a municipality inadvertently into an Establishment Clause violation. For help determining whether your municipality’s practices are consistent with the law, please contact Amanda J. Sundquist and Andrew Rau in our West Chester office.