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Supreme Court of United States upholds prayer practice before legislative meetings

Supreme Court of Unites States upholds prayer practice before legislative meetings

Supreme Court of the United States
Town of Greece, New York v Galloway et al
Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
Before: Kennedy J, Roberts C.J, Kagan J, Thomas J, Alito J, Scalia J, Breyer J, Ginsburg J, Sotomayor J.
5th May, 2014
Reported by: Suzan Nabifo & Linda Awuor

Brief Facts Town of Greece is a town in upstate New York. For some years, it began its monthly board meetings with a moment of silence. However, since 1999, the monthly town board meetings opened with a roll call, recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer given by clergy selected from the congregations listed in the local directory. While the prayer was open to all creeds, nearly all the local congregations were Christians, thus nearly all the participating prayer givers were too.
The respondents were citizens who attended these meetings to speak on local issues. They filed suit, alleging that the town violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by preferring Christians over other prayer givers and by sponsoring sectarian prayers. They sought to limit the town to “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers that referred to a generic God.

The District Court upheld the prayer practice on summary judgment, finding no impermissible preference for Christianity, concluding that the Christian identity of most of the prayer givers reflected the predominantly Christian character of the Town’s congregation an not an official policy or practice of discriminating against minority faiths; finding that the first amendment did not require Greece to invite clergy from congregations beyond its borders to achieve religious diversity and rejecting the theory that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian.

The Court of Appeals for the second circuit reversed this decision. It held that some aspects of the prayer program, viewed in their totality by a reasonable observer, conveyed the message that Greece was endorsing Christianity. The Court emphasized that was the interaction of the facts of this present case that rendered the prayer practice unconstitutional.


  1. Whether the applicants, imposed an impermissible establishment of religion by opening monthly board meetings with a prayer.
  2. Whether the prayer practice in Greece fit within the tradition long followed in congress and the state legislatures.
  3. Whether the respondents were coerced to participate in the prayers.

Constitutional Law – Constitution of the United States of America – interpretation of the Constitution – First Amendment – Establishment Clause of the First Amendment-religious and philosophical views-prayer-whether opening monthly board meetings with a prayer established an impermissible religion.

Constitutional Law – Constitution of the United States -fundamental rights and freedoms – freedom of religion-whether the respondents were coerced to participate in the prayers

Constitution of the United States – First Amendment “The First Amendment guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. It forbids Congress from both promoting one religion over others and also restricting an individual’s religious practices. It guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely. It also guarantees the right of citizens to assemble peaceably and to petition their government.”

Held: Majority opinion of the Court by Justice Kennedy

1. A majority of States had a consistent practice of legislative prayer. There was historical precedent for the practice of opening legislative meetings with prayer as well.

2. As practiced by congress since the framing of the Constitution, legislative prayer lent gravity to public business, reminded law makers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expressed a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.

3. Any test the court adopted had to acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the framers and had withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change. A test that would sweep away what had long been settled would create new controversy and begin anew the very divisions along religious lines that the Establishment Clause sought to prevent.

4. Insistence on nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard was not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer outlined in the court’s cases for example Marsh v Chambers,463 U.S. 783,792,where court concluded that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted by reference to historical practices and understandings.

5. To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than was the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.

6. 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 particular prayer would not likely establish a constitutional violation. So long as the Town maintained a policy of non-discrimination, the Constitution did not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.

7. The First Amendment was not a majority rule and government ought not to have sought to define permissible categories of religious speech. Once it invited prayers into the public sphere, government had to permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictated, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considered to be nonsectarian.

8. The relevant constraint derived from the prayer’s place at the opening of legislative sessions, where it was meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage. Prayer that was solemn and respectful in tone, that invited law makers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embarked on factitious business of governing, served that legitimate function. From the Nation’s earliest days, invocations had been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds, striving for the idea that people of many faiths might be united in a community of tolerance and devotion, even if they disagreed as to religious doctrine. The prayers delivered in Greece did not fall out of that tradition.

9. That nearly all of the congregations in town turned out to be Christian did not reflect an aversion or bias on the part of town leaders against minority faiths. So long as the town maintained a policy of nondiscrimination, the constitution did not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.

As per Justice Alito with whom Justice Kennedy,Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas joined

10. The prayer opportunity in this case had to be evaluated against the back drop of historical practice. As a practice that had long endured, legislative prayer had become part of the heritage, tradition, 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 beginning of this Court’s sessions.

11. It was presumed that the reasonable observer was acquainted with that tradition and understood that its purposes were to lend gravity to public proceedings and to acknowledge the place religion held in the lives of many private citizens, not to afford government an opportunity to proselytize or force truant constituents into the pews.

12. The prayer in this case had a permissible ceremonial purpose. It was not an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The town of Greece did not violate the first amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comported with the tradition and did not coerce participation by non adherents.

13. The informal way in which the town lined out guest chaplains was typical of the way in which many things were done in small and medium sized units of local government. When a municipality like the town of Greece sought in good faith to emulate the congressional practice, that municipality ought not be held to have violated the constitution simply because its method of recruiting guest chaplains lacked the demographic exactitude that might be regarded as optimal.

14. Offense however, did not equate to coercion. Adults often encountered speech they found disagreeable and an Establishment Clause violation was not made out any time a person experienced a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum, especially where, as here, any member of the public was welcome in turn to offer an invocation that reflected his or her own convictions.

Dissenting opinion by Justice Breyer joined joined by Justice Kagan and Justice Sotomayor

1. The Town made no significant effort to inform the area’s non-Christian houses of worship about the possibility of delivering an opening prayer.

2. The fact that nearly all the prayers given reflected a single denomination takes on significance. That significance would have been the same had all the prayers been Jewish , Hindu, Buddhist or any other denomination. The significance was that, in a context where religious minorities existed and where more could easily have been done to include their participation, the town chose to do nothing.

3. Greece’s Board did nothing to recognize religious diversity; in arranging for clergy members to open each meeting, the town never sought(except briefly when this suit was filed) to involve, accommodate, or in any way reach out to adherents of non-Christian religions. That practice, did not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owned an equal share in her government.

4. The promise in the First Amendment was; full and equal membership in the polity for members of every religious group assuming only that they, like anyone who lived under the Government’s protection ought to demean themselves as good Citizens. This meant this much; when the citizens of this country approached their government, they did so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another. And that meant that even in a partly legislative body, they ought not have confronted government-sponsored worship that divided them along religious lines. The Town of Greece betrayed that promise.

The judgment of the U.S Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit was reversed

Relevance to Kenyan Jurisprudence.

Article 8 of the Constitution 2010 provides that there shall be no state religion.
This means that government cannot be seen to dictate what is to be permissible as religious speech. Prayer givers have to be given the freedom to address their personal beliefs as conscience dictates.

Article 27( 4) of the Constitution, 2010 provides that; The State shall not discriminate directly or indirectly against any person on any ground, including race, sex, pregnancy, marital status, health status, ethnic or social origin, colour, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, dress, language or birth.

Article 32 provides for freedom of conscience, religion, belief and opinion. It provides that every person has the right to freedom of conscience, religion , thought , belief and opinion and that every person has the right ,either individually or in community with others, in public or in private, to manifest any religion or belief through worship, practice, teaching or observance, including observance of a day of worship. The article further provides that a person shall not be compelled to act, or engage in any act, that is contrary to the person’s belief or religion.

This case could therefore offer guidance in matters where the state is dragged to court by an overzealous religious practitioner over the prayer practice during state functions.

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