In a blow to secularists and civil libertarians, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in Greece v. Galloway to allow Christian prayers at a local council. The Court again left little clarity on the standard for future cases in what proved a highly fractured decision. Justice Anthony Kennedy tipped the balance in favor of the Town of Greece with Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Samuel Alito, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas. However, his opinion was left in pieces by a series of concurring opinions. Scalia and Thomas specifically bolted over Part II-B of Kennedy’s opinion (except as to Part II–B, concluding that the town’s prayer practice does not violate the Establishment Clause.) Alito wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Scalia. Justice Thomas also wrote a concurring opinion joined by Justice Scalia in part. Even the dissenting justices divided with a Breyer opinion for himself and a dissent by Kagan that was joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor. In other words, an unholy mess.
The record in the case was viewed by many as highly suspicious in how the council almost exclusively used Christian ministers while professing to be open to any faith, including atheists. The town followed an informal method for selecting prayer givers under which a town employee would call the congregations listed in local directory. That itself allowed for an obvious bias but also the town only had Christian ministers. Even Kennedy admitted that “from 1999 to 2007, all of the participating ministers were too.”
The prayers often referenced Jesus or Biblical passages:
“Lord we ask you to send your spirit of upon all of us gathered here this evening to do your work for the benefit of all in our community. We ask you to bless our elected and appointed officials so they may deliberate with wisdom and act with courage. Bless the members of our community who come here to speak before the board so they may state their cause with honesty and humility. . . . Lord we ask you to bless us all, that everything we do here tonight will move you to welcome us one day into your kingdom as good and faithful servants. We ask this in the name of our brother Jesus. Amen.” Id., at 45a.
“Lord, God of all creation, we give you thanks and praise for your presence and action in the world. We look with anticipation to the celebration of Holy Week and Easter. It is in the solemn events of next week that we find the very heart and center of our Christian faith. We acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We draw strength, vitality, and confidence from his resurrection at Easter. . . . We pray for peace in the world, an end to terrorism,violence, conflict, and war. We pray for stability, democracy, and good government in those countries in which our armed forces are now serving, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . . Praise and glory be yours, O Lord, now and forever more. Amen.”
Kennedy emphasized that the Court had long recognized a historical practice of prayers as not violating the establishment clause:
An insistence on nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer outlined in the Court’s cases. The Court found the prayers in Marsh consistent with the First Amendment not because they espoused only a generic theism but because our history and tradition have shown that prayer in this limited context could “coexis[t] with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.” 463 U. S., at 786.
Kennedy found no evidence of coercion in the use of the prayers by the Town of Greece:
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 the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs. The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
Kennedy made clear that secular values would not replace religious values in such public meetings as a constitutional mandate and refused to require “chaplains to redact the religious content from their message in order to make it acceptable for the public sphere . . . Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy.”
This does not of course help those who do not believe in theism. I suppose, like Rome, when in Greece just learn to do as the Greeks do.
The case is Greece v. Galloway, 12-696. In my Supreme Court class, the students voted overwhelmingly to affirm by a vote of 11-1. The prediction was closer. Five of us thought that the Court would reverse the Second Circuit (which it did) and seven students thought the Court would affirm.
Here are the opinions.