WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme
Court on Monday gave local government officials across the United States
more leeway to begin public meetings with a prayer, ruling that
sectarian invocations do not automatically violate the U.S.
The court said on a 5-4 vote that the town of Greece in New York
state did not violate the Constitution's ban on government
endorsement of religion by allowing Christian prayers before monthly
Although such prayers have long been a tradition in some
communities, the high court had never before expressly said
sectarian prayers could be constitutional in some circumstances or
specifically held that prayers could be given before meetings of
local government entities.
In Monday's closely divided decision, the court said a prayer could
violate the Constitution if there was an attempt to intimidate,
coerce or convert nonbelievers.
Politicians from both major political parties, including President
Barack Obama, a Democrat, had backed the town. Kentucky Republican
Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the U.S. Senate, said in a
statement the court had "reaffirmed the strong constitutional
footing of this important American tradition."
Although the ruling referred only to legislative prayer, it could
give a boost to government officials seeking to promote religion in
public life in other contexts, such as sectarian religious displays
in civic buildings.
Erwin Chemerinsky, a professor at the University of California,
Irvine School of Law, who filed a brief opposing the Greece prayers,
said the ruling "certainly reflects five justices who want to allow
much more of a religious presence in government and government
support for religion."
The court was divided along ideological lines, with the conservative
wing saying the prayers were acceptable, while the liberal justices
said the prayers in question violated the First Amendment. The five
justices in the majority are Roman Catholic. Of the four dissenters,
three are Jewish and one is Catholic.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court's swing vote, wrote the majority
opinion. He said the town's prayers were consistent with the high
court's 1983 precedent in a case called Marsh v. Chambers. That case
made it clear that the long-standing practice of having prayers
before state legislative sessions was lawful, based in large part on
its historic nature.
Kennedy gave short shrift to language in a 1988 case, County of
Allegheny v. ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union), that suggested
prayers must be nonsectarian.
"To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian 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," Kennedy wrote.
Although the policy in Greece, a town of 100,000 people, does not
embrace a particular religion, all members of the public who gave a
prayer were Christians until two residents filed suit in 2008. Some
of the prayers featured explicitly Christian references, including
mentions of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Residents Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an
atheist, said in their lawsuit that the practice made them
The court focused on whether the content of the prayers constituted
coercion. Finding there was none, Kennedy wrote that "offense ...
does not equate to coercion."
But the court did set some limits, with Kennedy saying prayers that
"denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation
or preach conversion" might not pass muster.
Writing on behalf of the four liberals, Justice Elena Kagan said
that for years the prayers in Greece were sectarian and the town did
nothing to encourage members of other faiths to give the prayers.
"In my view, that practice does not square with the First
Amendment's promise that every citizen, irrespective of her
religion, owns an equal share in her government," Kagan wrote.
Bill Reilich, Greece's Republican town supervisor elected in
November, was not in the office when the lawsuit was first filed and
litigated but said he recognized some residents would be
disappointed by the decision.
"We are not forcing it on anyone," he said. "If they feel
uncomfortable joining the prayer, they can have a moment of
Greg Lipper, a lawyer with Americans United for Separation of Church
and State, said the ruling was likely to have the most impact in
towns with large Christian communities.
"It definitely increases the leeway of local boards to impose
majority religion," Lipper said.
The case reached the high court after the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals in New York ruled against the town in May 2012. A district
court had previously supported the town's position by dismissing the
lawsuit filed by Galloway and Stephens.
The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway, U.S. Supreme Court, No.
(Additional reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir in New York; Editing by
Howard Goller and Grant McCool)