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Supreme Court Turns Blind Eye to Exclusionary Prayers at Government Meetings

Heather L. Weaver,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief
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May 5, 2014

This morning, the Supreme Court issued a disappointing and troubling decision upholding a town board’s practice of opening its meetings with Christian prayers.

For more than a decade, the town board of Greece, New York, has started meetings with prayers delivered by local clergy, all of whom, with a few brief exceptions, have been Christian. The court’s decision today allows the town to continue these official prayers despite the fact that they exclude local citizens of minority faiths and divide the community along religious lines.

The news is not all bad, however. While the outcome in this case was disheartening, the court did make clear that there are limits on legislative prayers. They may not “denigrate non-believers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion,” and they must remain consistent with the purported purpose of such invocations — to solemnize and lend gravity to the occasion.

Still, as Justice Kagan points out in her powerful dissent, today’s ruling reflects “two kinds of blindness.”

First, the court’s opinion focuses heavily on prayers delivered in Congress and state legislatures, but it fails to recognize that an intimate meeting of a town board or county council is much different. Ordinary citizens regularly attend these meetings for a variety of reasons — e.g., to keep abreast of local affairs, to seek zoning permits, and to receive awards. In the town of Greece, they were confronted directly and repeatedly with official, Christian prayers and called on to join in those prayers.

Second, the Court dismisses the content of the prayers as “ceremonial” in nature, notes Kagan, disregarding the fact that Greece’s predominantly Christian invocations profess “profound belief and deep meaning, subscribed to by many, denied by some.” When the government forces such prayer on its people in this manner, she explained, it violates the “norm of religious equality” and the right of every citizen to “[p]articipate in the business of government not as Christians, Jews, Muslims (and more), but only as Americans.”

And today’s decision reflects a third kind of blindness that Justice Kagan did not identify: Historical practice should never be used to justify violating core constitutional principles like the separation of church and state, which reserves religious practice and worship for the individual and faith communities, not the government.

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