The town of Greece, New York starts town hall meetings with a prayer, and that practice was challenged by two Greece residents who argued that the town was aligning itself with the Christian faith and that the prayers were not secular, but sectarian.
The district court found for the Town of Greece, and the Second Circuit reversed, stating "a legislative prayer practice that, however well-intentioned, conveys to a reasonable objective observer under the totality of the circumstances an official affiliation with a particular religion violates the clear command of the Establishment Clause."
On Monday, the Court issued five opinions -- let's just say this was a close one.
The Opinion of the Court
Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, and held that Greece's legislative prayer did not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, relying on a long history, dating back to the framers, that "demonstrates that the Framers considered legislative prayer a benign acknowledgment of religion's role in society." He also relied on prior Supreme Court case, Marsh v. Chambers, upholding legislative prayer in Nebraska, for the proposition that "legislative prayer lends gravity to public business."
Justice Kennedy rejected Respondents' argument that the prayer must be neutral because censoring religious speech "would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town's current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact." It should be noted that Justices Thomas and Scalia did not join in section II-B of the opinion that held that Greece's actions did not "coerce participation by nonadherents."
Justices Alito and Thomas Concur
Justice Alito, with Justice Scalia joining, wrote separately to address the "principal dissent [which] accuses the Court of being blind to the facts of this case." Among other things, Justice Alito was concerned that the hypotheticals in Justice Kagan's dissent would be interpreted "as a warning that this is where today's decision leads -- to a country in which religious minorities are denied the equal benefits of citizenship."
Next, Justice Thomas authored a concurring opinion. He wrote separately to reiterate his "view that the Establishment Clause is 'best understood as a federalism provision," and that States, not individuals, are the beneficiary of the Clause. He also clarified that "coercion" in Establishment Clause analysis is "actual legal coercion ... not the 'subtle coercive pressures' in this case.
Justices Breyer and Kagan Dissent
Justice Breyer penned a dissent finding that "on the particular facts of this case, the town's prayer practice violated the Establishment Clause." Justice Kagan authored the principal dissent, in which Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Sotomayor joined. She listed hypotheticals -- such as going to court, a polling place or a naturalization ceremony -- and noted that prayer in those instances would cross "a constitutional line."
She agreed with the ceremony of legislative prayer, but found Marsh distinguishable on three grounds; in Greece the prayer (1) was at a town hall meeting where members of the public were present; (2) was directed at ordinary citizens, not just legislators; and (3) "were predominantly sectarian in content."
Judging by the number, and nature of opinions, this was a highly divisive issue. This certainly won't be the last time a case of this nature is before the Court, we'll have to see how far others' religions are pushed into our lives, until then, this is the law.
- Greece Needs a New Prayer Policy (FindLaw's U.S. Second Circuit Blog)
- Town of Greece v. Galloway: Town Prayers and the Establishment of Religion (FindLaw's U.S. Second Circuit Blog)
- Year in Review 2013: Highlights From the Second Circuit (FindLaw's U.S. Second Circuit Blog)