Can Government Meetings Start With A Prayer? Supreme Court Issues Ruling

| by Sarah Fruchtnicht

The Supreme Court upheld the right of local officials to hold prayer before state government meetings on Monday, stating that even prayers which are overtly Christian are not unconstitutional.

The 5-4 decision says that the content of prayers at government meetings is not critical as long as officials make a good-faith effort to be inclusive of other beliefs. The court was against the possibility of having government leaders parse prayers for sectarian content before they were held.

This is a victory for Greece, N.Y., which held prayer before council meetings for the last 11 years. Two women sued claiming that the overwhelmingly Christian prayers are a violation of their rights.

The majority of justices argued that the audience at the meeting "is not the public, but the lawmakers themselves."

"The prayer opportunity is evaluated against the backdrop of a historical practice showing that prayer has become part of the Nation's heritage and tradition," the majority wrote in an opinion. "It is presumed that the reasonable observer is acquainted with this tradition and understands that its purposes are to lend gravity to public proceedings and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens."

"Greece's town meetings involve participation by ordinary citizens, and the invocations given -- directly to those citizens -- were predominantly sectarian in content," Justice Elena Kagan argued in her dissent.

"No one can fairly read the prayers from Greece's town meetings as anything other than explicitly Christian -- constantly and exclusively so," Kagan wrote. "The prayers betray no understanding that the American community is today, as it long has been, a rich mosaic of religious faiths."

Sources: USA Today, Fox News