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Supreme Court Allows Prayers in City Council Meetings

What clergy should note about invitations to lead public prayers.

Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, 134 S.Ct. 1811 (2014)

By a 5-4 vote, the United States Supreme Court has ruled that the practice of opening city council meetings with prayer does not offend the United States Constitution, even though most of the persons offering prayers were Christian ministers and many of the prayers contained references to Christian doctrine. This article will review the facts of the case, and explain the Court's ruling.

Facts

Greece, a town with a population of 94,000, is in Upstate New York. For some years, it began its monthly town board meetings with a moment of silence. In 1999, the newly elected town supervisor decided to replicate the prayer practice he had found meaningful while serving in the county legislature. Following the roll call and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, the town supervisor would invite a local clergyman to the front of the room to deliver an invocation. After the prayer, the supervisor would thank the minister for serving as the board's "chaplain for the month" and present him with a commemorative plaque. The prayer was intended to place town board members in a solemn and deliberative frame of mind, invoke divine guidance in town affairs, and follow a tradition practiced by Congress and dozens of state legislatures.

The town followed an informal method for selecting prayer givers, all of whom were unpaid volunteers. A town employee would call the congregations listed in a local directory until she found a minister available for that month's meeting. The town eventually compiled a list of willing "board chaplains" who had accepted invitations and agreed to return in the future. The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation. But nearly all of the congregations in town were Christian; and from 1999 to 2007, all of the participating ministers were, too.

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