Supreme Court Upholds Prayer Before Board, Council, Legislative Sessions

Updated 4 years ago by Tony E. Rutherford, News Editor
Supreme Court Upholds Prayer Before Board, Council, Legislative Sessions

"...the content of prayer is not the concern of judges..." a majority of the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court wrote reversing a ruling that disallowed prayer before a New York town council meeting. Actually, the sentence has a "provided" clause. In this case, the opening prayer should not "exploit to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief."

The tradition of opening a legislative session or town council meeting dates back to the forefathers. It lends  "gravity" (i.e. respecl and courteous ) to  public proceedings.

Huntington City Council Chairman, Mark Bates, told HNN, " I am pleased to learn of the Supreme Courts ruling on allowing the continuation of public prayer at City Council meetings. Mission Tri-State does a wonderful job of providing multi-denominational invocations at our meetings in Huntington. I couldn't imagine our meetings beginning without a prayer. I appreciate the many volunteer clergy that take their time to provide this service."

Since Huntington's City Council offers a multi-denominational approach (i.e. Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Catholic, etc.) , This choice  falls within the majority opinion and would have  complied with the inclusive and  diversity objection of the Supreme Court dissenting justices i.e. they objected to the  repeated invoking of a single religious belief which would "cross a constitutional line."

In the case before the nation's highest court, several citizens of Grace , New York,  challenged the prayers as violating the Constitution's Establishment Clause by preferring Christianity over other prayer givers. "They sought to limit the town to “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers that referred only to a “generic God,” the Supreme Court summary reads. However, the predominate religion within the borders of Greece, NY is Christian; the justices did not require that clergy be invited from outside the town's borders in order to achieve diversity.

Dissenting justices advocate that the Grace, N.Y. council should have reached out to other religions in order to achieve diversity. They note that members did not invite other religious speakers until after the suit was filed.

Jacqueline Leung, a student at Willamette University College of Law summarized the ruling :

"The history of prayer in Congressional history is not new, as it follows a tradition practiced from the early days of Congress and is still practiced in many state legislatures. To require prayers to be nonsectarian and provide a generic message results in censorship, a violation of one's First Amendment rights of religious speech and freedom. In addition, there are difficulties in determining what is considered sectarian and nonsectarian speech.  As long as the prayers are respectful in tone, and invites all lawmakers to reflect on shared commonalities before beginning business, it serves a legitimate function."

During a portion of the court's opinion, three justice's contemplate whether the opening prayer opportunity constitutes "coercing citizens to engage in a religious observance." They determine that the prayer is for the lawmakers themselves, not for the onlookers. Opponents state that praying makes them feel offended through exclusion, but the justices determine that "offense," does not equate to coercion.

Finally, pertaining to the Grace, N.Y. board meetings and hypothetical circumstances by the four disagreeing justices, Justice Kagan wrote, " When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so as American's not as members of one faith or the other." He also writes that a "board meeting" of the Grace  town council is more "intimate" and "individualized" than the opening of Congress or the Legislature. His analogy equates the Board Meeting to the petitioning for grievances aspect of the First Amendment.

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