Government Sponsored Prayer Revisited

By: Reginald Augustus

Is it time for the Supreme Court to strike down all government-sponsored official invocations?    If not, what limitations should the Court re-emphasize based on the limited exception allowed for religiously neutral invocations?  The Supreme Court will be addressing the issue of legislative prayer in Town of Greece v. Galloway.  The issue of legislative prayer in this case has reintroduced an old contentious debate, leading to the Court to revisit the issue for the first time in almost three decades.

Generally, the First Amendment of the United States Constitution’s Establishment Clause has been interpreted in part to prohibit the preference by the U.S. government of one religion over another.  However, an exception to the clause was created in Marsh v. Chamberswhen the court upheld the use of government sponsored invocations when the prayers are nonsectarian.  It is important to recognize that the Supreme Court has not upheld government-sponsored prayer outside of Marsh v. Chambers.  This tends to show that the Court has generally adhered to the opinion that the government should remain neutral with respect to prayer.

In Town of Greece v. Galloway, several local residents are challenging a New York State suburb’s practice of beginning regular occurring meetings with an official prayerTown of Greece differs from the Marsh case because the legislative prayers are significantly denominational; nearly two-thirds of the prayers reference the Christian faith.  The prayer here does not meet the exception set out in Marsh because the Court in Marsh upheld the invocations based on the non‑denominational nature of the prayers.  The non-Christian plaintiffs in Town of Greece, who are opposed to the prayers, argue that the prayers negatively affect them because the coercive setting of the meetings makes them conspicuous to the local decision makers.

Those who are in favor of the legislative prayers argue that there should be no barring of denominational prayers because  administering the requirement would be burdensome and would impermissibly involve the government in doctrinal matters.  However, the historical practices of courts and legislatures have shown an ability to implement such requirements with little problems in differentiating between the sectarian and non‑sectarianJustice Scalia has noted, “our constitutional tradition, from the Declaration of Independence and the first inaugural address of Washington, . . . down to the present day, has, with a few aberrations, . . . ruled out of order government-sponsored endorsement of religion — even when no legal coercion is present  . . . — where the endorsement is sectarian, in the sense of specifying details upon which men and women who believe in a benevolent, omnipotent Creator and Ruler of the world are known to differ (for example, the divinity of Christ).”  Additionally, some proponents of legislative prayers also argued that only prayers that attempt to convert someone from one religion to another should be banned.  However, this approach does not appear to solve the issue of content review.  Necessitating content review in each instance of prayer would probably place a larger burden on the courts and legislatures in determining the substance and motivation of prayers, causing more ambiguity then the rule from Marsh.  This ambiguity will most likely lead to opportunities for states to engage in sectarian prayers that are aligned with a particular faith or belief.  Finally, some proponents have argued for a complete hands-off approach to the issue; making any and all kinds of prayer legal without regard to denomination or any other stipulation.  However, this approach would likely lead to outlandish and over the top prayer displays that local officials would be without authority to address.  This would go against the very essence of religious liberty and equality, trouble those who are in the minority, cause division within communities along religious contours, and likely isolate individual’s democratic contribution.

While the First Amendment clearly gives all individuals the right to believe and practice whatever faith or belief they choose, no one has the right to force those beliefs on others, especially during official government meetings.  It is clear to me that in Town of Greece, local officials clearly overstepped the Marsh ruling during their monthly meetings with the use of regular sectarian prayers.  These prayers isolated those who had different faiths or beliefs that did not align with the majority.  It seems clear that other than a narrow exception to the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution, the Court has consistently limited government-sponsored invocations to non-sectarian prayers only.  I think that the Court should reaffirm their previous ruling in Marsh, setting a clear line between what is permissible and impermissible when government-sponsored invocations are used.

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