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Town of Greece v. Galloway

Citation. 572 U.S. __, 134 S.Ct. 1811, 188 L.Ed.2d 835 (2014).

Brief Fact Summary.

Plaintiff challenged Defendant’s use of prayer to open its monthly board meetings, arguing it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Synopsis of Rule of Law.

Legislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate.

Facts.

Defendant invited a local member of the clergy to deliver an invocation at the front of the board of supervisors meeting rooms, beginning in 1999 in a town of 94,000. Defendant followed an informal method for selecting the prayer givers, all of whom were unpaid volunteers. A town employee would call the congregations listed in a local directory until she found a minister available.

Any person, including an atheist, could give the invocation. The prayers were never reviewed in advance. Plaintiff brought suit, challenging this practice. She argued Defendant violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by preferring Christians over other prayer givers. Plaintiff sought an injunction that wold limit the town to inclusive prayers referring only to a generic God and would not associate the government with one faith or belief.

Issue.

Whether the town’s use of prayer violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Held.

No. The town’s use of prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Dissent.

Justice Breyer

Greece is a predominately Christian town, but it is not exclusively so. the town made no significant effort to inform the area’s non-Christian houses of worship about the possibility of delivering opening prayer. In a context where religious minorities exist and where more could have easily been done to include their participation, the town chose to do nothing. Having failed to make reasonable efforts, its prayer givers were almost exclusively persons of a single faith.

Justice Kagan

Defendant violates the norm of religious equality. Greece’s Board did nothing to recognize religious diversity. [J. Kagan offered three hypothetical scenarios in which sectarian prayer infuses governmental activity.] Prayer repeatedly invoking a single religion’s beliefs in these setting crossed a constitutional line.

In my view, the town’s practices here similarly do not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.

Concurrence.

Justice Alito

The narrow aspect of the principal dissent is really quite niggling. I am concerned that some readers will take the dissent’s hypotheticals as a warning that today’s decision leads to a country in which religious minorities are denied equal benefits of citizenship. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Justice Thomas

I write separately to reiterate my view that the Establishment Clause is best understood as a federalism provision. As I have said before, the text and history of the Clause resist incorporation against the states.

Discussion.

It is not necessary to define the precise boundary of the Establishment Clause where history shows that the specific practice is permitted. Accordingly, the prayers delivered here do not fall outside the tradition this Court has recognized. A number of prayers did invoke the name of Jesus, the Heavenly Father, or Holy Spirit. Many also invoked universal themes like the spirit of cooperation. The purpose and effect here is to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent rather than exclude or coerce nonbelievers.

Our analysis would be different if the Board directed the public to participate, singled out dissidents, or indicated their decision might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayers. Judgement reversed.


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