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Supreme Court Allows City Councils to Pray, Endorse Not Coerce Religion

The bare conservative majority of the Supreme Court voted wrong on official government prayer yesterday. In a 5–4 decision on Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court ruled that city councils and other legislative bodies may engage in public prayer at their meetings.

The majority ruled that legislative prayer and other religious practices are acceptable if they follow a historical tradition and if the framers of the Constitution would have accepted it. Tradition and framers' approval would also appear to have justified slavery.

The majority said that the question of whether a city council's prayer endorses a particular religion does not matter; a legislative prayer violates the First Amendment only when it coerces people to support a particular religion. Those of us who do not share the majority religious conviction have a different view of what constitutes coercion, but the Justice Anthony M. Kennedy and the Roberts-Alito-Thomas-Scalia theocrats offered us little support yesterday.

Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog summarizes the eight criteria Justice Kennedy's opinion offers for Constitutional legislative prayer:

  1. Prayer can take place in Congress and state legislatures, where citizens are just observers, and in local council meetings where citizens are often active petitioners.
  2. Prayer must be ceremonial: councillors can't do it during the official business portion of the meeting.
  3. Governmental bodies may invite anyone they want to do the prayer, and even pay them (I need to get a gig as a traveling atheist chaplain).
  4. Governmental bodies can't dictate the content of official prayers. The prayers need not be generic.
  5. Governmental bodies may not proselytize, may not require participation, and may not razz those who do not participate (hmm... would that include Rapid City councilman Chad Lewis calling an atheist dissident a bully?).
  6. Government prayers can't attack a particular religion (or lack thereof, I'm assuming), but the city council doesn't have to make an extra effort to bring in prayer leaders of different faiths. If the only people who show up to fluff their faithful feathers are the local Jesus crowd, so be it.
  7. The audience must be mostly adults (there's a different standard of coercion when you're talking to children).
  8. The Court will determine violations of the Establishment Clause only by looking at "a pattern of prayers," not the content of any individual prayer. One overly Jesusy prayer doesn't throw out the practice; challengers to city prayer must demonstrate a pattern of coercion against the unorthodox.

Under these standards, the Rapid City Council and the Meade County Commission can probably continue opening their meetings with their demonstrations of piety. However, Justice Kennedy's opinion reminds us that invocations of deities in public meetings should not be religious chest-thumping:

In rejecting the idea that legislative prayers must be nonsectarian, the Court does recognize a constraint on such prayers, he adds.

“The purpose of legislative prayer is to lend gravity” to sessions where “the divisive business of governing” will take place.

The prayer tradition reflected in [Marsh v. Chambers] permits those delivering the prayers “to ask their own God for blessings of peace, justice, and freedom that find appreciation among people of all faiths” [Mark Walsh, "A 'View' from the Court: A Divided Ruling on Prayer, But No Fireworks," SCOTUSblog, 2014.05.05]

While the Town of Greece v. Galloway ruling authorizes official behavior that I find offensive, Justice Kennedy lays out criteria that make that official behavior more tolerable. Prayer from the public podium is not meant to score points with one's gods or voters. Performed properly, it should reinforce the seriousness of the business at hand and seek common ground with all citizens. Those criteria tell me that, even if the Supreme Court isn't going to shut down city council prayers, city councilors should still select their public prayers carefully to subordinate their pious urges to their civic duties and the common good.


  1. Jessie 2014.05.06

    "city councilors should still select their public prayers carefully to subordinate their pious urges to their civic duties and the common good."

    Should. What a lovely thought. My cyncial tendencies don't hold out much hope for should. This decision opens the floodgates for every piss-ant town bully to shove his/her beliefs down the throats of other citizens.

    How long before a pattern is established? What evidence of a pattern is needed for a charge to hold up in court? I'm disgusted with the five conservative justices, even more than usual.

    They are supposed to rule constitutional or not constitutional. Not whether the Framers would've liked it or whether it has historical precedent.

  2. Jamie Scarbrough 2014.05.06

    Siouxland Freethinkers are already petitioning to open a Sioux Falls city council meeting. We'll see what Huether says...

  3. owen reitzel 2014.05.06

    I'm on the city council. If I was a Muslim could I say a Muslim prayer?

  4. caheidelberger Post author | 2014.05.06

    Heck yeah, Owen! As long as you keep it serious.

    Jamie, bring on those serious atheist exhortations to community and good government!

    Jessie, I agree completely. Tradition and framer approval seem to violate the rule of law.

  5. Randall 2014.05.06

    I wouldn't mind if their prayer went something like this:
    "Jesus Christ let's make sure we get this right!"


    "For God's sake, let's not screw this up!"

  6. Joan Brown 2014.05.06

    Randall I like your thoughts.

  7. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.05.06

    I heard about this ruling on the radio first, the Strib. What a bunch of crap.

    First, building faith and sharing it are each individual church's responsibility, not the governments.

    Second, there is an assumption that they know the thoughts of the founders.

    What biblical evidence is there that Jesus supported government ordered religion? What is there anywhere in the Bible, even including apocryphal writings, that leads anyone to think that Christ wanted his followers to use the government, any government, to promote Christianity?!

    On the other hand, the Gospels are full of Jesus' exhortations for his followers to witness to those openly willing to listen. No coercion, no captive audiences. If they are not clearly willing to hear - leave.

    This is crap. Those trying to force religion, through a wide variety of government interventions, pose a far greater threat to the faith than LBTG folks loving each other and enjoying sexual intercourse like an overwhelming percentage of adults.

  8. Roger Cornelius 2014.05.06

    It will be really important that Hillary gets elected in 2016 precisely because of this bull.

    With any luck, President Obama will have an opportunity to replace one two of those conservatives fools by the end of his term.

  9. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.05.06

    Emperor Constantine of Rome began the conversion of Christianity into a civic religion when he made it the official faith of Rome. His mother, Monica, pushed him hard to do so. That was in the 300s. It's only gotten worse since then. Not to be outdone by the leaders of an empire that crashed spectacularly, American conservative voices have tried to emulate them since white people first inhabited this continent.

    Maybe that makes me an odd woman out, but doesn't that seem like a positive role model.

  10. Roger Cornelius 2014.05.06

    What the Supremes have neglected in their ruling is the inevitable legal challenges that will occur one day when one member of the clergy decides that their prayer is more pious than anybody else's.

  11. barry freed 2014.05.07

    It is impolite to eat in front of others if one does not have enough for everyone.
    It is the same for prayers.
    If they can come up with a prayer that is all inclusive, that is one thing. Until then, they can have a "prayer minute" in which everyone in the room says whatever they please.

  12. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.05.08

    All-inclusive prayers are not difficult. Ethical chaplains have been offering such prayers for a very long time. I've provided all-inclusive prayers on a number of occasions. One of the most recent was a memorial service for a gentleman who lived in a halfway house for alcoholics trying to stay sober. He'd abused his body for so long that it finally gave out completely.

    There was a great diversity of religions, including none. So I did not pray to "God." I prayed to the source of their strength or courage or hope. I offered about 30 seconds of silence for them to "place yourself in the presence of that source. Allow that source that nourishes and nurtures you to seep through your skin, into your bones. Feel your source pulsing through your entire body with each beat of your heart . . ."

    I've never heard a complaint, direct or indirect, about prayers like that.

    BTW, there have always been unethical religious types who've deliberately prosletyzed, but it sure seems they've gotten worse about it. The largest group of prosletyzers are evangelicals. Keep in mind, although most prosletyzers a evangelical, most evangelical chaplains do not prosletyze. The Air Force Academy in Colo Springs has dealt with ongoing scandals recently due to evangelical chaplains deliberately ignoring the chaplains military oath to forgo prosletyzing. Nice Christian behavior, right?

    BTW, there are atheists in foxholes and everywhere else in the military. During my years of service at Fort Meade, I met veterans with a huge variety of religious beliefs, from Christians to atheists to one Druid. Fascinating.

  13. mike from iowa 2014.05.08

    Doesn't matter if Hillary gets elected,wingnuts will never allow any new justice to tip the wingnut balance of the Scotus. If the next justice nominee is not a clone of the four most conservative justices,he/she won't even get to sniff a vote.

  14. Deb Geelsdottir 2014.05.08

    just read a post on David Schultz's blog about this decision. (He is a professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN.) It was very insightful and Schultz's conclusion really surprised me. Here are a few quotes:

    "Exposing individuals to ideas that they would rather not hear is not coercion, especially when those ideas a brought up are not by the government but private citizens, in this case, members of the local clergy. For the Court, it is not coercion to be exposed to ideas one objects to unless in some way the government (my emphasis) does something more, such as retaliates. Justice Thomas and Scalia in their concurrence reinforce this notion, stating that coercion only occurs when religious orthodoxy is enforced “by force of law and threat of penalty.

    "The Court–with Chief Justice Roberts writing–rejected assertions that the mere posting on the Internet of the names of the petitioners along with maps indicating their locations is not enough of a showing of intimidation and harassment to void on First Amendment grounds their disclosure. Scalia, pushes the issue even further, declaring that we should have the courage of our convictions.

    "The standard regarding what constitutes coercion in Galloway has precedential implications for disclosure laws, suggesting that more than mere offense or unpopularity of a viewpoint is necessary to implicate First Amendment concerns." - See more at:

    I am urging Madizens read all of this post. His conclusion is that SCOTUS has opened the judicial door to open campaign financing laws. Wow. Massive campaign finance law implications.

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