A Supreme Court Win on Prayer

By Richard Nelson

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May 6, 2014

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The Supreme Court ruled 5-4 on Monday to allow the city hall meetings of Greece, New York to continue their practice of an opening prayer. A group of voters who were present during one of the prayers brought suit against the city, claiming that specific references by the clergy to Jesus were too sectarian and discriminated against non-Christians present. The Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling in favor of the plaintiffs.

The majority opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, emphasized that the invocation had tradition as well as legal precedent behind it. Further, Kennedy explained that there was no evidence of coercion or denigration of non-Christian views during the meeting. Theological content, said Kennedy, was irrelevant to the Court as long as no actual discriminatory practices were taking place.

This decision by the court represents a couple of important moments for religious liberty. First, Justice Kennedy repeatedly made the point that the mere presence of theology does not automatically create discrimination. This is an important precedent for religious liberty cases involving institutions that may try to censor or prohibit religious speech by members (graduation speeches are one good example).

Secondly, as Mark Movsesian points out, the Court ruled in favor of a local community that was embracing its own cultural identity and tradition. Movsesian says,

The Court seems to be endorsing localism in this case. Towns are not required to have legislative prayer, of course. But those many towns that do wish to start their meetings with prayer—even exclusively Christian prayer—will now be able to do so, as long as they show that they made reasonable efforts to be inclusive. And if the only places of worship in town are Christian, then it’s reasonable for the town to have only Christian prayers. That’s the upshot of the Court’s decision.

The Court’s decision simultaneously empowers local communities to embrace their unique traditions and identity, as well as provides some legal precedent for the protection of religious language in a public gathering. This is a decision to celebrate, not just for Christians but for all who value freedom of conscience in the public square. 

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Director, Commonwealth Policy Center