Explainer: The Supreme Court’s Ruling on Government Prayer
Religion & Liberty Online

Explainer: The Supreme Court’s Ruling on Government Prayer

Anti-Abortion Activists Demonstrate Outside The Supreme CourtWhat was the Greece vs. Galloway case about?

The short answer: The constitutionality of saying religiously specific prayers (e.g., praying in Jesus name) at government meetings and functions.

The (slightly) longer answer: In the town of Greece, located in upstate New York, the Town Board sessions were opened by a prayer from local clergy, mostly leaders of Christian congregations although in a few instances members of other faith traditions offered the invocation (a Jewish man, a Baha’i leader, and a Wiccan). The Second Circuit Court ruled the prayers were unconstitutional since they aligned the town government officially with a particular faith — Christianity. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court.

What was the Supreme Court’s ruling?

In a 5-4 decision, split along traditional right-left lines with Justice Kennedy joining the majority, the court ruled that the town’s practice of beginning legislative sessions with prayers does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court concludes:

The town of Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.

What was the position of the dissenting judges?

The minority opinion was that the prayers were too sectarian and were not sufficiently religiously diverse. Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent for the minority, saying,

The town of Greece failed to make reasonable efforts to include prayer givers of minority faiths…Greece’s Board did nothing to recognize religious diversity…prayer repeatedly invok­ing a single religion’s beliefs in these settings—crossed a constitutional line.

What does this mean for religious liberty?

Religious people are now free to say prayers in public meetings that align with their faith—Christians can mention Jesus, Muslims can pray to Allah, etc.

“The Court’s landmark decision today echoes the wisdom of the Founders,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Not only did the Court uphold the centuries-old practice of legislative prayer, it also started the work of bringing the entire law of church and state onto a firmer foundation in the words of the Constitution.”

And as Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, writes in Time magazine:

Some would argue that this decision, Town of Greece v. Galloway, represents an establishment of religion, that it tears down the separation between the church and the state. They are wrong. The decision does just the opposite. Notice what the town was not doing. They were not writing prayers, or censoring prayers, or even requesting certain wording in prayers. They were simply allowing sessions to open with persons praying according to their own consciences.


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Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).