U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Constitutionality of Legislative Prayer

U.S. Supreme Court Upholds Constitutionality of Legislative Prayer

In 2013, KLC filed an amicus brief in the case of Jones et al. v. Hamilton County Government, TN before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals, supporting the constitutionality of invocations held at public meetings of local legislative bodies. The 6th Circuit held that the county’s formal written invocation policy was constitutional on its face, and therefore did not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, because the policy took steps to be inclusive of all bonafide religious organizations, was not discriminatory, and did not evaluate the content of the invocations given by private citizens. 

KLC reminded its members at that time that the U.S. Supreme Court was itself considering a similar issue, and thus addressing the constitutionality of legislative prayer for the first time in 30 years.  In a 5-4 decision issued May 5, 2014, the Supreme Court held that the Town of Greece, New York did not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with a prayer.  Read the Town of Greece v. Galloway opinion here. 

The Supreme Court reaffirmed the 1983 decision of Marsh v. Chambers, which held that history supports the conclusion that legislative prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause.  Such prayer, the Court held, is intended to solemnize meetings and recognize the role religion has played in our nation’s history – a practice that has been part of national and state legislative body meetings since the First Congress.

The Greece Court evaluated the town’s invocation practice in the context of this historical background.  The Court held that nonsectarian prayers – i.e., those that are not identifiable with any one religion – are not required to avoid an Establishment Clause violation:

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 is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.

…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 prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation.

In light of this decision, cities can continue invocation practices that do not disparage or support a particular religion.  For an example of a prayer policy like the one upheld by the 6th Circuit, click here   

For more information on legislative prayer, please contact KLC’s Member Legal Services Department.