A divided Supreme Court, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, said on Monday that the town of Greece, N.Y., can begin its town meetings with a religious prayer, delivered almost exclusively by Christian clergy.
Officially, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision to overturn a lower court ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, with the Court's conservative leaning Justices voting to overturn the prayer restriction established by the lower court.
Justice Kennedy said the town's prayer practice does not violate the Establishment Clause under the First Amendment.
"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. The judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is reversed," Kennedy said.
Kennedy said that, "the prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion."
"The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers," he said.
The decision was the first time since 1983 that the Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of legislative prayers. In that case, Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court considered a challenge to the Nebraska legislature's practice of employing a Presbyterian minister, who lead the legislature in prayer for 16 years, and concluded that such prayers did not violate the Establishment Clause.
In 1999, the town of Greece — population 94,000 — in the state of New York instituted the practice of beginning its town meetings with a religious prayer, delivered almost exclusively by Christian clergy selected by a town employee from a list lacking non-Christian faiths.
Two residents in the town, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, objected to these prayers offered at the start of the local town board sessions. They felt that the prayer sessions violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The case made its way to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which sided with Galloway and Stephens in holding that the heavy Christian influence of the prayers unconstitutionally violated the Establishment Clause.
The interpretation of the Establishment Clause, however, has long been a contentious issue at the Supreme Court, with controversies ranging from the display of the 10 Commandments outside courthouses to prayers in public schools.
In Town of Greece, Galloway and Stephens urged the Supreme Court to hold that the prayer practice "puts coercive pressure on citizens to participate in the prayers." The town of Greece, however, wanted the Court to adhere to the Marsh precedent and uphold the town's prayer practice.