WASHINGTON - A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that legislative bodies such as city councils can begin their meetings with prayer, even if it plainly favors a specific religion.
The court ruled 5 to 4 that Christian prayers given before meetings of an Upstate New York town council did not violate the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion, citing history and tradition.
"Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court's conservative majority.
The ruling reflected a Supreme Court that has become more lenient of how government may accommodate religion in civic life without crossing the line into an endorsement of a particular faith. All nine justices endorsed the concept of legislative prayer, with the four dissenters agreeing that the public forum "need not become a religion-free zone," in the words of Justice Elena Kagan.
But there was sharp disagreement after that, and the majority ruling could encourage public bodies to give more leeway to religious expression in their ceremonial prayers and less deference to the objections of religious minorities.
The court's five conservatives said legislative prayers need not be stripped of references to a specific religion - the prayers at issue often invoked Jesus Christ and the resurrection - and said those given the opportunity to pray before legislative meetings should be "unfettered" by what government officials find appropriate.
"Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation," Kennedy wrote.
He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel Alito.
Kagan's dissent was both narrow - the town could have remedied its problems by finding more religious diversity in its prayer-givers, she said - and broad. The First Amendment's promise, she wrote, is that "every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government."
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor joined her.
The decision split the court along its usual ideological divide and, to a lesser extent, by religion. All members of the majority are Catholic, as is Sotomayor. The other dissenters are Jewish.
The case involved the New York town of Greece, just outside Rochester, where the council regularly opened its meeting with a prayer delivered by someone in the community. The speakers were recruited from the town's houses of worship, which were overwhelmingly Christian.
In fact, every meeting from 1999 to 2007 opened with a Christian prayer, and even after two of the town's residents filed a lawsuit, only a handful of non-Christians have delivered the invocation.
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found that "the town's prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint" because the town had not reached out to a more diverse group of prayer-givers or made clear that the prayers did not represent the town's beliefs.
The Supreme Court decided 30 years ago that state legislatures may begin sessions with an invocation. But the new case asked whether there might need to be different rules for a local council meeting, where citizens often come to ask for favorable official action.
The town residents who objected to the prayer practice, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, also argued that the court's 1983 decision in Marsh v. Chambers authorized only inclusive, nonsectarian prayers to a "generic God."
Kennedy began with history: The same Founders who wrote the First Amendment - with its prohibition on the establishment of a government religion but also protections for religious liberty - provided funds for congressional chaplains, he said.
"Legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of 'God save the United States and this honorable Court' at the opening of this court's sessions," he wrote. And he said there was no evidence that town council members "allocated benefits and burdens based on participation in prayer."
In Pennsylvania, the state House and Senate traditionally have begun each session day with a prayer. Leaders from all religions, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, among them, have been invited to offer prayers. The only request is that the prayers not reference a specific religion. On some days prayers are conducted by lay speakers, including members of the House.
In Woodbury, Gloucester County, Mayor Bill Volk said it was "high time" that the Supreme Court issued such a decision. Volk, a Lutheran and Democrat elected in 2012, said invocations by area clergy have been a staple for years at council meetings, held twice a month.
"We're not trying to force our beliefs on someone else," he said. Noting that at least one resident does not stand during the prayer, he said: "That's his right."
"They bless the council and mayor to make sure we're making the correct decisions for the people," Volk said. "I'll take all the help I can get."