supreme-court(from Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal) WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court ruled Monday that city councils and other public boards are free to open their meetings with an explicitly Christian prayer, declaring that judges may not act as “censors of religious speech” simply because the prayers reflect the views of the dominant faith.

 The 5-4 decision rejected the idea that government-sponsored prayers violate the Constitution if officials regularly invite Christian clerics to offer the prayers.  

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion (speaking for the court), said prayers and invocations have been a routine feature of legislatures and city councils throughout American history, and he said the court was unwilling to set specific limits on those prayers.

The 1st Amendment’s ban on an “establishment of religion” does not require “that legislative prayer may be addressed only to a generic God,” the decision states. To enforce such a requirement would mean judges would have to review the prayers and “act as supervisors or censors of religious speech.”

“Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be non-sectarian,” Kennedy wrote in Town of Greece v. Galloway.

“Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith,” Justice Kennedy wrote.

The court found the town’s practice constitutional under a 1983 precedent upholding invocations* before a state legislature. [*An invocation is a prayer for blessing or guidance at the beginning of a service, ceremony.]  Justice Kennedy stressed the unique nature of legislative invocations, a tradition dating to the Continental Congress, and distinguished the town-board case from precedents barring teacher-led prayers or religious invocations in public classrooms and graduation ceremonies.

Greece, a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., with 96,000 residents, in 1999 began inviting clergy to offer invocations at the beginning of monthly meetings and handing out “chaplain of the month” plaques to those who voluntarily spoke. The practice was challenged in 2008 by two local residents – one Jewish and the other an atheist – who first complained at town meetings about the prayers and then took the matter to court.

The court’s majority said the town’s practice is compatible with the Constitution. “The town of Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents,” Justice Kennedy wrote.

He noted that the Greece case was “fact-specific” and said the court wasn’t endorsing invocations that “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion.” Rather, he wrote, “prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves [a] legitimate function.”

The decision had an immediate effect. A federal judge in Baltimore, citing the Greece decision, on Monday lifted a preliminary injunction issued in March that restricted invocations at Carroll County, Md., commission meetings. The injunction had barred invoking “the name of a specific deity associated with any one specific faith or belief in prayers given at board meetings” while a legal challenge to Carroll County public prayers went forward.

Meanwhile, Greece town officials said they would continue to hold prayers at the beginning of meetings. “Today we have received the affirmation from the United States Supreme Court that this practice can and will continue,” said Bill Reilich, Greece’s town supervisor.

In dissent, (the minority opinion) Justice Elena Kagan wrote that while the Constitution doesn’t impose “a bright separationist line” between church and state, Greece’s policy still violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause (see “Background” below) because it produced overwhelmingly sectarian prayers at government meetings.

“Month in and month out for over a decade, prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits,” Justice Kagan wrote, in a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor. “The practice thus divides the citizenry, creating one class that shares the board’s own evident religious beliefs and another (far smaller) class that does not.”

Justice Kennedy, however, wrote that the fact that nearly all the clergy who delivered Greece’s invocations were Christian reflected the community, where no congregations of other faiths were listed in the town directory.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion in full. Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia supported the majority but wrote separately to say they believe the court has improperly limited state governments’ ability to support religion.

Abridged and adapted from news reports at the Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal. Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from LA Times and WSJ.


1. Define the following words used in the article:

  • majority opinion(from para. 3)
  • dissent (para. 13)
  • precedent (para. 7)
  • invocation (para. 7)
  • establishment clause (para. 13)
  • sectarian (para. 13)

2. Who brought the case before the court?

3. a) What is the population of the town of Greece, NY?
b) What did Justice Kennedy note in his opinion about the the relation between the invocations being delivered by Christian clergy and the religious makeup of the community?

4. a) Name the justices who joined the majority opinion.
b) What points did Justice Kennedy make in his opinion?

5. a) Name the justices who joined in the dissent.
b) What points did Justice Kagan make in her dissent?

6. What effect will the Supreme Court’s ruling have on lower court cases around the country?

7. Do you think the Supreme Court’s decision will benefit our communities, be bad for our communities, or have no effect? Explain your answer.



The Establishment Clause is the first of several pronouncements in the First Amendment, stating,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…

and is immediately followed by the Free Exercise Clause, which states,

“or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”

These two clauses make up what are called the “Religion Clauses” of the First Amendment.

The Establishment Clause has generally been interpreted to prohibit 1) the establishment of a national religion by Congress, or 2) the preference by the U.S. government of one religion over another.

The first approach is called the “separation” or “no aid” interpretation, while the second approach is called the “non-preferential” or “accommodation” interpretation. The accommodation interpretation prohibits Congress from preferring one religion over another, but does not prohibit the government’s entry into religious domain to make accommodations in order to achieve the purposes of the Free Exercise Clause. The Establishment Clause addressed the concerns of members of minority faiths who did not want the federal government to establish a state religion for the entire nation. (from wikipedia)

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