Thursday, 8 May 2014

Greece v Galloway - Town Council Prayers in the US

In the case of Town of Greece v Galloway 572 U.S. ____ (2014) the United States Supreme Court has decided that that prayers before the opening of meetings of a Town Council does not violate the Ist Amendment to the U.S. Constitution which prohibits 

"an establishment of religion".

The case has echoes of the English case of Bone v Bideford Town Council [2012] EWHC 175 (Admin) (discussed in my 10 February Blog)

The case emerged after two women filed suit against the town of Greece in New York, claiming that the town’s practice of opening town council meetings with prayer violated the 1st Amendment. The facts presented in the case indicated that the vast majority of citizens who prayed were Christians, and that their prayers were Christian in content. The women charged that this practice violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. They did not demand that the practice of prayers before council meetings cease, but demanded that the prayers offered should be “inclusive and ecumenical prayers” and that all references would be to a “generic God.”

The Court ruled that the practice of the Town Council did not, in fact, violate the 1st Amendment and more interestingly rejected the entire concept of requiring prayer to be “nonsectarian prayer” to a “generic God.” As the Court stated:

"To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact. Respondents’ contrary arguments are unpersuasive. It is doubtful that consensus could be reached as to what qualifies as a generic or nonsectarian prayer. It would also be unwise to conclude that only those religious words acceptable to the majority are permissible, for the First Amendment is not a majority rule and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech."

In looking at the background to the case the Supreme Court noted that the town Council followed an informal method for selecting prayer givers, a town employee would call the congregations listed in a local directory until she found a minister available for that month’s meeting. The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. A minister or layperson of any persuasion, could give the invocation. But nearly all of the congregations in town were Christian; and  the participating ministers were too. The Town Council neither reviewed the prayers in advance of the meetings nor provided guidance as to their tone or content.  On one occasion a Wiccan Priestess applied to give the prayers and was allowed to do so. 

Justice Kennedy, giving the majority ruling in the case noted that that today’s interpretation of the Constitution must be guided by the actual practices of the framers. In other words, the Constitution must not be read to forbid what the framers of the document unquestionably allowed. He also quoted with approval the memorable words of Goldburg J in Abington School District v. Schempp 

“untutored devotion to the concept of neutrality” must not lead to “a brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular”

Justice Kennedy also added

Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.

A point regarding tolerance that our National Secular Society should perhaps think about


Paul de Mello Jnr said...

This case should be viewed in light of the recent 'Voluntary Recitation of Pledge of Allegiance' whereby some objected to the 'under God' part [1] - they lost too (The 1994version of 'Miracle on 34th Street' Film comes to mind). Same goes with our reciting our National Anthem.

True some Satanists (Havard graduates?) and Pasta-lovers ('Pastafarians' ridicules Rastafarians, on the grounds that if Rastafarians did not exist the term would not be used) may test the waters here, but as Wiccans and Druids have already been permitted, it is a sound ruling.
Kinda hoping for a blog on the Mormon case btw...

Neil Addison said...

Thanks Paul for the link to the Massachusetts case

I haven't blogged about the Mormon case because I was involved with the case as a lawyer and was at the hearing representing the Mormon Church. I felt that it would be professionally improper for me to discuss such a controversial and high profile case in a Blog.

I realise some other lawyers may take a different view but I tend to be a bit "old school" about professional ethics and standards