Dalton and Tomich white logo
Dalton and Tomich white logo

SCOTUS Upholds Legislative Prayer

Earlier this month, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) reversed the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and ruled that the town of Greece, New York did not violate the First Amendment when it allowed a prayer at monthly town board meetings.

Greece is a town in New York of about 94,000 people. Beginning in 1999, the town would open board meetings by first reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and then having a local clergyman say a prayer for the session. In order to find clergy to say the prayers, a town employee would make calls to the local religious organizations listed in the town’s directory. The town’s official stance was that a member of any faith or denomination could perform the prayer. However, almost all of the town’s congregations were Christian, so the prayer-givers from 1999-2007 were all Christian. The language of the prayers typically contained the usual religious language, with some of the prayers containing strong Christian themes.

Two residents of Greece, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, attended town board meetings. They did not approve of the prayers and claimed that the prayers violated their religious and philosophical views. After receiving complaints from Galloway and Stephens about the prayers, the town invited a Jewish resident and the chairman of the local Baha’i temple to give the monthly prayer. A Wiccan priestess also delivered a prayer for the board meeting.

Still having objections to the board meeting prayers, Galloway and Collins brought suit against Greece in federal court alleging that Greece had violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by preferring Christian prayers over non-Christian prayers, and by allowing sectarian prayers, such as ones said “in Jesus’ name.” They sought an injunction which would limit Greece to allowing only non-sectarian prayers made to a “generic God” and would not allow association with any one faith or denomination. The district court ruled in favor of Greece, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Galloway and Collins. The town then appealed to SCOTUS.

The opinion in Town of Greece v. Galloway was written by Justice Kennedy on behalf of a 5-4 majority. Kennedy relied heavily on the Court’s 1983 decision in Marsh v. Chambers. However, he used a slightly different interpretation of Marsh then had been used in a previous decision by the Court. For the majority, the most important issue was that of “coercion.” As long as the prayers at issue do not promote a certain religion or denigrate another religion, they will likely not violate the Establishment Clause. Further, according to the majority, it is not for the courts to decide which individual prayers use objectionable language. Instead, courts must watch for a “pattern of prayer” that would tend to be coercive.

It was also important to the majority to examine what types of prayer practices were permitted at the time the First Amendment was passed. In examining the “tradition of legislative prayer,” the Court noted that under Marsh, prayers are not required to be non-sectarian or to a “generic God.” The Court also found no fault with the fact that the vast majority of the prayers were Christian. The Court reasoned that the town had made efforts to bring in other faiths, but such organizations of other faiths were difficult to find in Greece.

The lead dissent, written by Justice Kagan, complained that Greece’s prayer practice violated the “norm of religious equality” because the prayers were overly sectarian and involved participation from ordinary citizens. Justice Kagan also wrote that Greece did not take sufficient action to involve other faiths in the monthly prayer.

The attorneys at Dalton & Tomich, PLC have extensive experience litigating First Amendment cases around the country. If you feel that you have a First Amendment issue, do not hesitate to contact us. We would be happy to discuss your matter with you. You can read the full opinion in Town of Greece v. Galloway here.

Attorney Advertising Disclaimer

Please note that this website may be considered attorney advertising in some states. Prior results described on this site do not guarantee similar outcomes in future cases or transactions.