The Supreme Court said Monday that city councils and other public boards are free to open their meetings with an explicitly Christian prayer, ruling that judges may not act as “censors of religious speech” simply because the prayers reflect the views of the dominant faith.
The 5-4 decision rejected the idea that government-sponsored prayers violate the Constitution if officials regularly invite Christian clerics to offer the prayers.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, speaking for the court, said prayers and invocations have been a routine feature of legislatures and city councils throughout American history, and he said the court was unwilling to set specific limits on those prayers.
The 1st Amendment’s ban on an “establishment of religion” does not require “that legislative prayer may be addressed only to a generic God,” the decision states. To enforce such a requirement would mean judges would have to review the prayers and “act as supervisors or censors of religious speech.”
“Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be non-sectarian,” Kennedy wrote in Town of Greece v. Galloway.
The ruling upholds the prayers offered regularly at town meetings in Greece, New York. Two women, one Jewish and the other atheist, had sued after attending a series of public meetings that featured a prayer to Jesus Christ.
While Kennedy’s opinion upholds these prayers, he said a city would go too far if the prayers “denigrate non-believers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion.” This “would present a different case,” he said.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr. formed the majority.
Justice Elena Kagan spoke for the four dissenters and faulted the court for “allowing the Town of Greece to turn its assemblies for citizens into a forum for Christian prayer."
“When citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as a members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines,” Kagan concluded.