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Supreme Court Says Prayer At Government Meetings Is Constitutional

Supreme Court Chamber

The Supreme Court has made a ruling on a case involving a small New York town’s meeting, where each meeting they open with a prayer with a “chaplain of the month.”  The Supreme Court has ruled, in a 5-to-4 decision, that it is legal for such government bodies to open their meetings with prayer.  Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that that “ceremonial prayer is but a recognition….many American deem their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond that authority of government to alter or define.”  Justice Elena Kagan, in the dissent, wrote that such prayer is a violation of the First Amendment and that it fails to show all, regardless of their religion, that they have an equal share of the government.

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The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a town in upstate New York may begin its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month.”

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in the 5-to-4 decision, said “ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond that authority of government to alter or define.”

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the town’s practices could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share of her government.”

Town officials said that members of all faiths, and atheists, were welcome to give the opening prayer. In practice, the federal appeals court in New York said, almost all of the chaplains were Christian.

Two town residents sued, saying the prayers ran afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion.

In 1983, in Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court upheld the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of opening its legislative sessions with an invocation from a paid Presbyterian minister, saying that such ceremonies were “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”

The plaintiffs in the case from Greece, New York, said their case was different. The prayers at the town board meetings were often explicitly sectarian, they said, and residents of the town, outside of Rochester, were forced to listen to them in order to participate in local government.

The appeals court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, agreed that the 1983 decision did not govern the case before it.

“A substantial majority of the prayers in the record contained uniquely Christian language,” Judge Guido Calabresi wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel of the court. “Roughly two-thirds contained references to ‘Jesus Christ,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘Your Son’ or the ‘Holy Spirit.’”

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