Supreme Court: It’s OK to Say ‘Jesus’ in Prayers at Town Meetings

Terence P. Jeffrey | May 5, 2014 | 4:10pm EDT
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The Rev. Kevin Kisler delivers a prayer at a town board meeting in Greece, New York, on Dec. 6, 2007. (AP Photo/Shawn Dowd)

( - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the Town of Greece, New York did not violate the First Amendment mandate that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” when it allowed clergy to invoke the name of “Jesus” and use other Christian language when giving opening prayers at meetings of the town’s board.

Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens had sued the town after Galloway told a meeting of the board that its opening prayers were “offensive.”

“They alleged that the town violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by preferring Christians over other prayer givers and by sponsoring sectarian prayers, such as those given ‘in Jesus’ name,’” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court in its 5-4 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway.

“They did not seek an end to the prayer practice, but rather 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,” wrote Kennedy.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Samuel Alito explained that the town had not intended to favor any particular religion, but had randomly asked local clergy whose congregations were listed in a local directory to say the opening prayer.

After Galloway and Stephens complained about the Christian nature of some of the prayers, the board made an effort to reach out to representatives of non-Christian denominations to say the prayer.

“The town decided to emulate a practice long established in Congress and state legislatures by having a brief prayer before sessions of the town board,” said Alito. “The task of lining up clergy members willing to provide such a prayer was given to the town’s office of constituent services. For the first four years of the practice, a clerical employee in the office would randomly call religious organizations listed in the Greece ‘Community Guide,’ a local directory published by the Greece Chamber of Commerce, until she was able to find somebody willing to give the invocation.

“This employee eventually began keeping a list of individuals who had agreed to give the invocation, and when a second clerical employee took over the task of finding prayer-givers, the first employee gave that list to the second,” Alito explained. “The second employee then randomly called organizations on that list—and possibly others in the Community Guide—until she found someone who agreed to provide the prayer.

“Apparently, all the houses of worship listed in the local Community Guide were Christian churches,” said Alito.

“As a result of this procedure, for some time all the prayers at the beginning of town board meetings were offered by Christian clergy, and many of these prayers were distinctively Christian,” he wrote. “But respondents do not claim that the list was attributable to religious bias or favoritism, and the Court of Appeals acknowledged that the town had ‘no religious animus.’

“For some time, the town’s practice does not appear to have elicited any criticism, but when complaints were received, the town made it clear that it would permit any interested residents, including nonbelievers, to provide an invocation, and the town has never refused a request to offer an invocation,” Alito said in his concurring opinion. “The most recent list in the record of persons available to provide an invocation includes representatives of many non-Christian faiths.”

In his opinion for the court, Justice Kennedy noted: “A Wiccan priestess who had read press reports about the prayer controversy requested, and was granted, an opportunity to give the invocation.”

Justice Kennedy argued that if the court accepted the argument made by Galloway and Stephens that only generic prayer could be offered in a public institution that America would be just a few steps away from telling chaplains what they could and could not say.

“Our Government is prohibited from prescribing prayers to be recited in our public institutions in order to promote a preferred system of belief or code of moral behavior,” wrote Kennedy. “It would be but a few steps removed from that prohibition for legislatures to require chaplains to redact the religious content from their message in order to make it acceptable for the public sphere. Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy.”

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Sam Alito, and Clarence Thomas joined with Kennedy in voting to uphold allowing non-generic prayers at Town of Greece board meeting. Justices Elena Kagan, Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor dissented.

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