Town of Greece v. Galloway: Prayer at Town Council Meetings

This morning the Supreme Court decided Town of Greece v. Galloway, on a challenge to prayers preceding a town council meeting. Evidence was that the small town of Greece, N.Y., near Rochester, had reached out to all the churches in a local directory offering the opportunity to give invocations; it happened that all the churches in town were Christian, but there was no sign that the town was conniving to avoid other religious faiths.

Quoting AP: “The court said in a 5-4 decision that the content of the prayers is not significant as long as officials make a good-faith effort at inclusion. … ‘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,’ [Anthony] Kennedy said [for the majority].”

The Court was split several ways, with Alito and Thomas/Scalia writing separately from the majority on various points, the latter two declining to join one section of the majority opinion, and Breyer writing separately as well as joining the dissent. Jonathan Adler analyzes the opinions at Volokh Conspiracy.

The fact is that the Justices were disputing a very narrow strip of territory in this case. Notably, all four liberal justices endorsed the Court’s earlier ruling in Marsh v. Chambers approving Nebraska’s use of prayer before legislative sessions. In other words, not a single current Justice in fact fits the “raving secularist liberal” caricature we sometimes hear about.

There will be overreactions by combatants on both sides of the culture wars. A few social conservatives, who I suspect must not have read the Kennedy opinion closely, are crowing as if the Court had somehow vindicated the views about religion and the public square of David Barton or the Witherspoon Institute. On the opposite side, Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, declared that the Court “just relegated millions of Americans— both believers and nonbelievers—to second-class citizenship.”

That wasn’t my reaction. As a convinced secularist I think I can live with the careful, limited balance Kennedy strikes, and I suspect most Americans will feel the same.

The American Humanist Association announced that it is launching a program training people in the giving of secular invocations. So did the Freedom from Religion Foundation, but with very different aims in mind: the AHA wants to show that unbelievers can fully join in and be an equal part of the civic ideals traditionally symbolized by invocations, while the FFRF is more intent on upsetting the applecart and creating enough discomfort with the whole idea of such a ceremony to cause its discontinuance.

I have to say I like the AHA’s approach better, but your views may differ.

About Walter Olson

Fellow at a think tank in the Northeast specializing in law. Websites include Former columnist for Reason and Times Online (U.K.), contributor to National Review, etc.
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3 Responses to Town of Greece v. Galloway: Prayer at Town Council Meetings

  1. BehindTheLines says:

    I guess I’m a “raving secularist” since I don’t think Christian prayers should be part of government meetings. I’m not going to lose sleep over it though. A society like ours that finds this debatable isn’t going to jail someone who says unkind things about Islam, which is what Britain is now doing.

  2. FlameCCT says:

    I guess I’m in the religious/conservative group(s) however I agree that the ruling was in accordance with the Constitution. I have no problem with religious prayers before a governmental body meeting. I also have no problem with a blessing or other form of address prior to the start of governmental meetings. IOW it does not offend my Christian nor my American beliefs that a government meeting be opened by an address by any religious or non-religious leader.

    This was a poor case because their was no discrimination by the Town, no intent to offend, nor proselytizing. I do agree with the manner in which the AHA (legally a religious organization) is addressing the issue. As for the FFRF, their organization is based on the false premise of Freedom from Religion where the government can deny all religion instead of Freedom of Religion where one (individual) chooses (freedom) their own beliefs regarding religion.

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