The US Supreme Court voted 5-4 on Monday that the town of Greece, New York, did not violate the Constitution’s ban on the government endorsement of religion by holding Christian prayers during monthly city council meetings.
This closely divided decision established that sectarian invocations do not automatically violate the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and provides local officials across the United States with more solid legal grounds to hold prayer before legislative meetings and promote sectarian religious displays in civic buildings.
While local communities have traditionally held such public prayers, as argued by Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority opinion, the nation’s highest court had never before expressly stated sectarian prayers could be constitutional during government meetings in some circumstances.
However, Justice Kennedy said government-sponsored prayers that “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion” may be unconstitutional. On the other hand, Justice Elena Kagan writing on behalf of the minority opinion, said that for years the prayers in Greece were overwhelmingly of the Christian faith and the town did nothing to encourage members of other creeds to give the prayers.
The case reached the Supreme Court after the 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in New York ruled against the town in May 2012. A district court had previously supported the town’s position by dismissing the initial lawsuit.