A year ago last Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway1 that prayer at town council meetings was entirely constitutional. The Court found that legislative prayers only become unconstitutional if they are overtly sectarian or coercive to engage in.2 The decision, although in line with lower court trends, completely disregards the basic constitutional principle enshrined in the First Amendment: the government cannot support the establishment of religion.
Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the majority, divided evenly on ideological and religious lines, explained that if a legislative body permitted anyone to lead a prayer and did not contain restrictions on what could be said was sufficiently non-coercive and non-sectarian.3 Nonetheless, objections to legislative prayer are substantial. Justice Kagan pointed out in her dissenting opinion that Town of Greece almost exclusively invited Christian ministers to perform the prayers, making the practice entirely sectarian. She also argued that because the prayers were focused on the residents, and not on the lawmakers, it further violated non-denominational rules.
The previous precedent set for legislative prayer was in Marsh v. Chambers4, decided in 1983. In that case, the Court ruled that legislative prayer could be allowed to such an extent that the chaplain hired by the legislature could be paid by public funds, as well as come from the same religious tradition for over 16 years. By ruling such a low standard for nonsectarian prayer, the court all-but-instituted Judeo-Christian legislative prayer as a standard practice throughout the country. Galloway only expanded the limits on legislative prayer, making it more difficult to challenge these offenses to our rights and the Constitution.
Legislative prayer has existed since the first Congress gaveled into session, so it won’t be going anywhere any time soon. In fact, Galloway showed that the trend is moving toward more legislative prayer, and more sectarian legislative prayer. This expansion makes the practice increasingly discriminatory not just against nonreligious Americans, but also against Americans of minority faiths that are not included in the increasingly sectarian prayers local governments are leading on a daily basis.