Respondents brought suit in the U.S district court for the Western District of New York alleging that the town violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by preferring Christians over over prayer givers in selecting a prayer giver for the town’s monthly board meeting.
The government may not coerce its citizens “to support or participate in any religion or its exercise.”
Greece, a town located in upstate New York, began its monthly town board meetings with a moment of silence. The town supervisor decided to invite a local clergyman to deliver an invocation. The town followed an informal method of selecting prayer givers, all of whom were unpaid volunteers. The town would select each prayer giver from congregations listed in a local directory and it never denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Nearly all of the congregations in the town were Christian. Respondents, who attended town board meetings to speak about issues of local concerns, complained that Christian themes pervaded the prayers at the exclusion of citizens who did not share those beliefs.
Does the town violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by preferring Christians over over prayer givers in selecting a prayer giver for the town’s monthly board meeting?
No, because the prayer practice in the town of Greece fits within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures. The respondents‘ insistence that prayer must be nonsectarian or not identifiable with any one religion is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer.
The majority’s citation of Marsh v. Chambers as a dictating precedent was misled. The prayers given in Greece were more sectarian and less inclusive than anything this Court described in Marsh. Thus, the prayer in Greece departs from the legislative tradition that the majority takes as a benchmark. Instead, the proper guideline is to follow the principle of neutrality which provides that the government may not favor any particular creed. But that is not what Greece did or could do. Citizens go before the government not as Christians or Jews but as Americans. They stand in front of the government as equal citizen, irrespective of religion.
The respondents‘ argument that prayer must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech. This would inevitably involve government in religious matters to an impermissible degree under the Constitution. Government or Congress may not prescribe prayers to be recited in our public institutions to promote a preferred system of belief.
Moreover, the town’s prayer practice is consistent with the First Amendment principle that government may not force individuals to support or participate in any religion or exercise. The town, through the act of offering a prayer to open its monthly meetings, is not compelling its citizens to engage in a religious observance. The audience of the invocation is limited to lawmakers.