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US court ruling favors prayer at council meetings

May 5, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — A narrowly divided U.S. Supreme Court on Monday upheld Christian prayers at the start of local council meetings, declaring them in line with long national traditions although the country has grown more religiously diverse.

The content of the prayers is not significant as long as they do not denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts, the court said in a 5-4 decision backed by its conservative majority.

The Obama administration backed the winning side, the town of Greece, New York.

The outcome relied heavily on a 1983 decision in which the court upheld an opening prayer in the Nebraska Legislature and said prayer is part of the nation’s fabric, not a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.

Writing for the court on Monday, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that forcing clergy to scrub the prayers of references to Jesus Christ and other sectarian religious figures would turn officials into censors. Instead, Kennedy said, the prayers should be seen as ceremonial and in keeping with the nation’s traditions.

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court’s four liberal justices, said, “I respectfully dissent from the court’s opinion because I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality — the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”

Kagan said the case differs significantly from the 1983 decision because “Greece’s town meetings involve participation by ordinary citizens, and the invocations given — directly to those citizens — were predominantly sectarian in content.”

In her dissent, Kagan said the council meeting prayers are unlike those said to open sessions of Congress and state legislatures, where the elected officials are the intended audience.

Kennedy and his four colleagues in the majority are Catholic. They are Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Kagan was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Of the four, three are Jewish and Sotomayor is Catholic.

Senior counsel David Cortman of the Alliance Defense Freedom, which represented the town, applauded the court for affirming “that Americans are free to pray.”

Ayesha Khan, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said the court disregarded the interests of religious minorities and nonbelievers.

In 2008, after residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens complained, four of 12 council meetings were opened by non-Christians, including a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation. Galloway and Stephens are described in their court filings as a Jew and an atheist.

The two residents filed suit and a trial court ruled in the town’s favor, finding that the town did not intentionally exclude non-Christians. It also said that the content of the prayer was not an issue because there was no desire to proselytize or demean other faiths.

But a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that even with the high court’s 1983 ruling, the practice of having one Christian prayer after another amounted to the town’s endorsement of Christianity.

The case is Greece v. Galloway, 12-696.

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Associated Press writer Mark Sherman contributed.

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