Demonstrators hold signs that read "Keep your theocracy off my democracy" and "This is not a church" in front of the Supreme Court on Nov. 6, 2013 during oral arguments of Greece v. Galloway. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

Supreme Court approves sectarian prayer at public meetings

(RNS) The Supreme Court Monday (May 5) declared that the Constitution not only allows for prayer at government meetings, but sectarian prayer.

Demonstrators hold signs that read "Keep your theocracy off my democracy" and "This is not a church" in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday (Nov. 6) during oral arguments of Greece v. Galloway. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

Demonstrators hold signs that read "Keep your theocracy off my democracy" and "This is not a church" in front of the Supreme Court on Nov. 6, 2013 during oral arguments of Greece v. Galloway. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy held that the town of Greece, N.Y., did not violate the Constitution's Establishment Clause, which forbids the government from endorsing a religion -- by sponsoring clergy who delivered sectarian prayers.

“To hold that invocations must be non-sectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech,” Kennedy wrote for himself and the conservatives on the court.

Lawmakers and judges would otherwise have to police prayer, he wrote, involving “government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact."

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissent, called the decision out of sync with American society. One First Amendment legal expert called it a "bad decision" that could lead to marginalizing followers of minority religions in their own hometowns.

Not suprisingly, the victory for the town of Greece case buoyed Christian conservatives and others who feel that religious expression has been overly curtailed in public settings.

“Today's Supreme Court decision is a great victory for religious liberty," said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

"Prayers like these have been taking place in our nation’s legislatures for over 200 years," he said. "They showcase our nation’s religious diversity, highlight the fact that religion is a fundamental aspect of human culture, and reinforce the founding idea that our rights come from the Creator -- not the legislature."

Family Research Council President Tony Perkins cheered the decision saying, "The court has rejected the idea that as citizens we must check our faith at the entrance to the public square."

Susan Galloway, a resident of the town of Greece, New York, who filed a lawsuit against the town, speaks to the media after oral arguments at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 6, 2013. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

Susan Galloway, a resident of the town of Greece, N.Y., who filed a lawsuit against the town, speaks to the media after oral arguments at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 6, 2013. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The decision, signed by five Catholics, disappointed the Jewish and atheist women who filed suit against the town, and their supporters. They had contended that prayers at town council’s meetings -- many of which invoked Jesus and the Holy Spirit -- excluded non-Christians. They argued that many who came to petition the council had to either go along with the prayers, and bow their heads in seeming agreement, or present themselves as visitors in opposition to the clergy and the government officials who had invited them.

Edwina Rogers, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, said it was very disappointing that the court "chose to ignore the very blatant burden sectarian prayer imposes on the conscience of citizens with diverse religious beliefs and those without religious beliefs."

Kagan spelled it out in her dissent:

“No one can fairly read the prayers from Greece’s town meetings as anything other than explicitly Christian -- constantly and exclusively so. The prayers betray no understanding that the American community is today, as it long has been, a rich mosaic of religious faiths.”

Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, said, “We are disappointed by today’s decision. Official religious favoritism should be off-limits under the Constitution. Town-sponsored sectarian prayer violates the basic rule requiring the government to stay neutral on matters of faith.”

Ira Lupu, a law professor emeritus at George Washington University who specializes in the First Amendment, said the ruling “effectively did away with decades of understanding” on how to deal with prayer in state, city and school board meetings.

"In past cases, legislative groups that consistently prayed in Jesus' name lost. But if they tried to make some reasonable effort to have a diverse or pluralistic pattern of prayer, they won. It was the pattern that mattered," he said.

The Monday decision “does away with that. It does not insist on any such reasonable effort to make prayer nonsectarian or to push for diversity. The majority faith in a particular community can dictate the prayers and minority faiths could be left out if they don’t step up and say, ‘Hey, what about us?’” 

Consequently, said Lupu, "a town or a city can effectively identify itself with a particular religious tradition. I think that is what establishment of religion is supposed to prevent. That’s why I think it’s a very bad decision."

But University of Notre Dame law professor Richard W. Garnett, who specializes in church/state relations and religious freedom, called the decision correct and unsurprising.

"What might be surprising, though, is that four justices dissented. It would have been a dramatic and controversial move ... to rule that legislative prayers are necessarily unconstitutional," Garnett said.

But Garnett also said, that just because sectarian prayers are constitutional, doesn't mean that policies like those of the town of Greece "are wise or welcoming."



  1. Ugh. What a dodge!

    They didn’t actually say anything to address the arguments presented. Just essentially saying, “its not our place to judge these things” (despite being judges).

    At what point would the Supreme Court recognize establishment of religion? When fundamentalists really start acting like government is “for Christians only”?

  2. Disgusting. The Fox News Theocracy continues its calculated treason
    to hand power to Crusader oligarchs against the establishment clause and the most important freedoms of our country.

    May this foolishness create a million Atheists
    Barbaric nonsense.

    “In every country and in every age, the preacher has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
    -Thomas Jefferson

  3. These particular justices would recognize government establishment of religion if the prayers were, say, Muslim.

    Scalia and Thomas, in particular, are Christian fascists straight out of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” They have never and will never recognize anything Christian in nature as a violation of the Establishment Clause.

  4. I expect Scalia, Alito, Roberts and Thomas to be dillholes when it comes to personal liberties. My disappointment is with Kennedy.

    He tends to be all over the place. He was the swing vote for Citizens United, but also shot down Prop 8, DOMA.

    His view of the Establishment Clause was always a bit more conservative than the liberal wing.

  5. What else would anyone expect from this supremely prejudiced, Catholic Supreme Court. This violating decision of our Constitution is equal to the outrageous prejudice of Citizens United.

    For all those who complain about the do-nothingism of our Republican House of Representatives, this decision is another instance that makes the Supreme Court equal in the atrocious prejudice that has always kept this country from being a democracy in spite of all the talk about such an entity from the time of the Confederacy and the Constitution. We have never been a democracy!

    We are in desperate need of changing that Constitution in more parts than by amendments or even in another convention. The three branches of our federal government have been brazenly violating our Constitution ever since it was approved by the people in the beginning. What good is the paper it’s printed on?

    There is no chance at this point where we would ever obtain agreement on a decent constitution that respects and protects the natural human rights of all citizens. We have divisions in reality now that makes this more than one country. The South attempted to secede once. The governor of Texas has threatened it more recently. We spread “from sea to shining sea” by violating the rights of other human beings, by murder and theft. We threaten to do that again with plans for the Canadian XL pipeline.

    It seems we should divide once we allow emigration to the new regions that are most to the liking of the citizens of each state now. We must never again make the error of the Framers of the present Constitution in giving life tenure to any judges or in preventing the people from having a say, at least from time to time, in any judge’s continuation on a court that makes decisions over them.

  6. @Gilhan,

    I think the problem is a credulous, religious population, bullied and lied to by decades of powerful clergy:
    Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, Billy Graham, etc…

    And the rich oligarchs have used this deference to authority and coordinated the Fox News Theocratic media takeover.

    The public, unable to think for itself, soaked and pampered in the baby oil of religion, is abandoning reason and rational discourse at every turn.
    Creationism and Intelligent design are cropping up in schools everywhere to destroy science.

    So many problems. So much religion in the way.

  7. Kevin-Do a piece on so called “Christians” who get drunk,gamble,gossip,
    be mean,smoke dope/cigars,sleep around,covet/get jealous and still
    live the same way before they came to Christ. Many in church only
    talk about gay marriage and/or abortion so they don’t have to face
    their own sin. Ephesians 5:18 says don’t get drunk and also it says
    in 1 Corinthians 6:10 that drunkards go to hell so why are so many
    people in church still drinking/getting drunk? It’s because it never
    gets confronted! The wine Jesus made was new wine/diluted and
    the Bible says don’t get drunk on strong wine so people who get
    drunk with wine are also wrong! The Bible says if you have a sharp
    tongue you religion is worthless so people need to bridle their tongue!
    People in church seem to forget Jesus said you are one of Mine only if
    you follow Me and many will say to Me Lord,Lord and not enter heaven!
    If people say they love Jesus then don’t follow the Bible/religion no Truth
    is in them! Shocking how many people in church don’t follow the Bible.
    Not enough to believe in Jesus. We must Repent and then follow Him!

  8. Karla, nobody has to give a crap about what you call sin. That is between you and your version of God, if any. Its when people take such notions and try to turn them into laws that we have to worry.

    In this case you have Christians who believe the government belongs to them and them alone. Not very congruent to American Democracy. Very Iran-like.

  9. It is ridiculous for people to fight over this. The culture does not believe in God. If it ever did, then the prayers meant something, but at this point, it is only symbolic ritual. Fighting over it is shortsighted.

  10. Nice work, Kevin.

    I’m boosting my support of American Atheists and Freedom from Religion over this.

    It is way past the time to challenge this religious nonsense wherever is shows up. If Christians think Atheists are too loud they may see more of David Silverman than they would like.

    Maybe a Satanic prayer before a government assembly would wake them up to how foolish this is?

  11. Did someone say Re-Pint?

    “my cup runneth over” – (Psalm 23:5)

  12. And that means “The Great God Pan” is an evil god, inconsiderate of natural human rights. Any time one claims a particular right for oneself and denies that same right to all others, that is evil, neither godly nor human.

  13. In other words, you guys lost.

  14. No. The argument is completely worth it.
    We will double down and increase the volume
    on the media.

    This will bring the atheists out of the closet.

  15. Doc,
    Yup. And you lost, too. Maybe more.
    Separation of Church and state protects atheists, but it also protects Christians from other denominations. You have no idea what you are playing with.

  16. This is one of the most bigoted articles I have read in a while. Let’s head count the Catholics on the Supreme Court. In case anyone missed the count in the article here-the majority was made up of 5 Catholics. Hey! None of them could possibly be voting their intellectual view of the Constitution. Now shall we start head counting Jews who vote in Congress for aid to Israel or Protestants who support Planned Parenthood.
    And, of course, the bigotry of the writers lets loose commenters to -not only rationally disagree with the decision– but to also irrationally attack people of religious faith.

  17. Attacking someone because they are Catholic is wrong. People are afflicted with indoctrination because their parents corrupted their thinking. It is a treatable condition and not endemic to a race or culture.

    But Attacking someone’s faith is perfectly acceptable.
    Taking a truckload of things on ‘faith’ is laughable and pitiful.

  18. Please continue to waste your time.

  19. Please continue to waste your time.

  20. What you call “Other Denominations” have been giving the daily invocation in our state legislature for decades.

    Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Bahai’s, Catholics, Protestants, libbies, conservatives, they all get their turn at the morning prayer. No fighting, no wars, no problems. Respect is show for all visitors as they offer prayer for the legislators.

    And all visitors are allowed to pray THEIR OWN WAY. Nobody trying to dictate to them, nobody trying to censor them or force them to deny their own religious traditions. That’s how you do it in a free country, Max.

    So everybody wins in our state. We’ve lost NOTHING (and certainly not lost our democratic freedoms) with our invocations.

    Of course, the no-good religion of atheism might lose out on this situation, seeing as they have no prayers to offer anyway. You have to have an object of prayer before you can offer a prayer!

  21. A prayer at the beginning of a meeting isn’t going to crush anyone’s world view. Be it a prayer from the Koran, the book of Mormon, the bible, whatever, how does this make a difference in the way government moves forward.

  22. Regular prayers which are sectarian in nature, favoring one religion over all others gives the impression the government is owned by said religion.

    In this case, it tells people who are not Bible Thumping Christians that the government will not take their concerns seriously.

  23. That is untrue. The prayers have been predominately sectarian and Christian in nature. Respect is only shown to them on a regular basis. Everyone else is treated as decidedly inferiors.

  24. Exactly, Larry.

    Plus, idiotic SCOTUS set a precedent with the word “Chaplain.”
    This will cause nothing but trouble. Picture some Christian denomination in some other town deciding the ‘Chaplain’ title has been unfairly favored and they want the right to use another title – like, “PRIEST”.

    Religion is enough of a time-waster without SCOTUS’ help.
    SCOTUS permissions must now be granted to a tidal wave of religious nut bags who can’t wait to preach in the little podunk towns across America.

    Fox News Theocracy won the day 🙁

  25. @DOC,

    YOU HAVE NO CLUE what SCOTUS is playing with. You and your foolish lobby has uncorked a disaster – one which the founders did everything they could to avoid!

    This isn’t about what team won! Good grief!

    SCOTUS has explicitly allowed “Chaplain” to read prayers!

    What will you do when SATANIC WORSHIPPERS must be allowed – by law – to say prayers too? AND AL QUEDA?

    I understand the SATANIC prayers are very long-winded and full of venom. But you’ll have to LIKE IT !! BY LAW!


  26. Its the atheist that brought the case not the Christian. They brought it on themselves.

  27. Waste my time? i can pray at government meetings and no one can stop me. yeah waste my time, right……

  28. Nobody could stop you from praying before.
    Now you will have to sit through my prayer to Satan. And you better like it.

  29. It’s ok I will laugh at your foolishness. Go for it.

  30. Some reasons Christians should have been dreading the ruling:

    1. First, it leaves a few deeply resentful, with hearts hardened to Christianity.

    2. Evangelicals are mistrusted. Given the deep differences among Americans, evangelical voices have rightly appealed to pluralism as the means for citizens to coexist peacefully, respecting disagreement while working together on those things that do unite us as a nation. But this principled pluralism is made to be a lie when evangelicals employ the state to promote Christian prayers.

    3. It creates an overly cozy relationship between government and willing local clergy. That the Christian faith receives succor from the city’s prayer policy makes it less likely that the church will raise its prophetic voice to criticize the town board when it undertakes bad policies or its officials misbehave.

  31. RE: “It’s ok I will laugh at your foolishness. Go for it.”

    Now you know EXACTLY how many feel about your prayers to GOD.

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