Supreme Court rules that prayer in town meetings is constitutional in New York

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U.S. Supreme Court

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that opening a town meeting with a prayer is constitutional.

The 5-4 ruling was in favor of Greece, New York—a small town outside of Rochester. The Court found that prayers are often ceremonial, and not used to convert meeting attendees.

"The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

Judge Kennedy also stated that the judicial branch should not censor what religious leaders can and cannot say in their invocations. Doing so would require "chaplains to redact the religious content from their message in order to make it acceptable for the public sphere," he wrote.

"Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy."

In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled in a similar case concerning the Nebraska legislature opening their sessions with a prayer. As in the New York case, the Court found that prayer is a national tradition, and not a First Amendment violation.

In the dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the New York and Nebraska cases differ because "Greece's town meetings involve participation by ordinary citizens, and the invocations given— directly to those citizens— were predominantly sectarian in content."

The lawsuit demonstrated that nearly every Greek townhall meeting from 1997 through 2010 was begun with a prayer that included Christian beliefs. After two residents complained, four meetings were opened with non-Christian prayers. The plaintiffs acknowledged that nearly all of the places of worship in the less than 100,000-person town are Christian.

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