WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court says prayers at the start of town council meetings do not violate the Constitution even if they routinely stress Christianity.
Susan Galloway, a Jewish resident of the Rochester satellite town Greece, and her friend Linda Stephens began legal proceedings some seven years ago after becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the consistently Christian prayers opening every town council meeting. Galloway and Stephens began attending meetings in an effort to save the local public access channel, Galloway told JTA in a 2013 interview.
Galloway told JTA, “They’re asking us to bow our heads, they’re asking us to join them in the Lord’s Prayer, they’re asking us to stand — all of this is in the name of Jesus Christ… This one guy went on about the resurrection. We have preachers who stand there with their hands in the air.”
However, the court said in 5-4 decision Monday that the content of the prayers is not critical as long as officials make a good-faith effort at inclusion.
Among the dissenters were Jewish judges Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan.
The ruling was a victory for the town of Greece, New York, outside of Rochester.
During the long legal battle, Galloway and Stephens received threatening letters — some signed “666” — and Stephens’s house was vandalized. Galloway told JTA she tried to turn to the Rochester Board of Rabbis for support, but she was greeted with a deaf ear.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State was instrumental in bringing the case to court, and Galloway also received support from the Reform movement, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, which filed friend-of-the-court briefs on her behalf.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion on the case, ruling, “From the Nation’s earliest days, invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds, striving for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion, even if they disagree as to religious doctrine. The prayers delivered in Greece do not fall outside this tradition.”
The ruling dismisses Galloway’s claims of feeling offended or excluded by the Christian prayer, saying offense or exclusion do not constitute coercion, which would be illegal. The opinion states “the reasonable person” would understand the prayer is to lend gravity to the public proceedings and acknowledge the role religion has for private individuals.
In 1983, the court upheld an opening prayer in the Nebraska legislature and said that prayer is part of the nation’s fabric, not a violation of the First Amendment. Monday’s ruling was consistent with the earlier one.
Kagan, in a dissent for the court’s four liberal justices, 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.”
A federal appeals court in New York ruled that Greece violated the Constitution by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers that stressed Christianity.
From 1999 through 2007, and again from January 2009 through June 2010, every meeting was opened with a Christian-oriented invocation. In 2008, after Galloway and Stephens complained, four of 12 meetings were opened by non-Christians, including a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation.
A town employee each month selected clerics or lay people by using a local published guide of churches. The guide did not include non-Christian denominations, however. The appeals court found that religious institutions in the town of just under 100,000 people are primarily Christian, and even Galloway and Stephens testified they knew of no non-Christian places of worship there.
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.
Kennedy, however, said judges should not be involved in evaluating the content of prayer because it could lead to legislatures requiring “chaplains to redact the religious content from their message in order to make it acceptable for the public sphere.”
He added, “Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy.”
Kennedy himself was the author an opinion in 1992 that held that a Christian prayer delivered at a high school graduation did violate the Constitution. The justice said Monday there are differences between the two situations, including the age of the audience and the fact that attendees at the council meeting may step out of the room if they do not like the prayer.
The case is Greece v. Galloway, 12-696