Geof Stone on SCOTUS Decision in Town of Greece, New York, v. Galloway

God Save This Honorable Court

The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause prohibits the government from engaging in any practice “respecting an establishment of religion.” So is it constitutional for the town board of Greece, New York, to open its monthly meetings with a prayer given by clergy selected from congregations in the town—all of which are Christian? Yes, the Supreme Court ruled Monday in a 5-4 decision in Town of Greece, New York, v. Galloway.

In the past, the court has held that a legislative body does not violate the Establishment Clause if it begins its proceedings with a prayer, so long as “the prayer opportunity” is not “exploited to proselytize or advance any or belief.” The town of Greece clearly violated that essential condition. Indeed, from the time the town established its prayer practice in 1999 until the litigation commenced, a period in which the town board held approximately 100 meetings, every chaplain invited to deliver the opening prayer represented the Christian clergy.

Moreover, the vast majority of their prayers were explicitly sectarian in nature, routinely invoking “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Your Son,” “the Holy Spirit,” the “resurrection and ascension of the Savior Jesus Christ,“ “the celebration of Holy Week,” “the saving sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross,” and “the very heart and center of our Christian faith.” In short, the tenor of the prayers typically assumed that everyone in the room—including the individual citizens who were there to plead their causes to the town board—was Christian. (After the litigation was filed, the town briefly reached out to invite a few non-Christians to deliver the prayer, but that shift was short-lived, and the town soon resumed its practice of inviting only chaplains from Protestant and Catholic churches.)

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