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Originally published May 6, 2014 at 11:21 AM | Page modified May 6, 2014 at 11:24 AM

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Supreme Court upholds prayer at public meetings

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a town in upstate New York did not violate the Constitution by starting its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month” who was almost always Christian.


The New York Times

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WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a town in upstate New York did not violate the Constitution by starting its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month” who was almost always Christian.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 5-4 decision that divided the court’s more conservative members from its liberal ones, said the prayers were merely ceremonial. They were neither unduly sectarian nor likely to make members of other faiths feel unwelcome.

“Ceremonial prayer,” he wrote, “is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond that authority of government to alter or define.”

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the town’s practices could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share of her government.”

Town officials in Greece, N.Y., near Rochester, said that members of all faiths, and atheists, were welcome to give the opening prayer. In practice, however, almost all of the chaplains were Christian. Some of their prayers were explicitly sectarian, with references, for instance, to “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.”

Two town residents sued, saying the prayers ran afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion. They said the prayers offended them and, in Kennedy’s words, “made them feel excluded and disrespected.” But Kennedy said the relevant constitutional question was not whether they were offended. He said traditions starting with the first Congress supported the constitutionality of ceremonial prayers at the start of legislative sessions. He added that it would be perilous for courts to decide when those prayers crossed a constitutional line and became impermissibly sectarian.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito joined all of Kennedy’s opinion, and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas most of it.

Kennedy said town officials had tried to recruit members of various faiths to offer prayers.

In dissent, Kagan said they had not tried hard enough.

In 1983, in Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court upheld the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of opening its legislative sessions with an invocation from a paid Presbyterian minister, saying that such ceremonies were “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”

Kagan, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, said in this case prayers at the town board meetings were often explicitly sectarian and residents were forced to listen to them in order to participate in local government.



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