It's not even about whether local municipalities can have prayers before meetings in which all sorts of quasi-legislative, executive and administrative actions are discussed; all nine justices agree on that, too.
No, this is about whether a small town with residents from many faiths can decide to only invite Christian leaders to lead sectarian prayers, for years, never bothering to invite leaders from other faiths until citizens start complaining, and hinting about lawsuits, when there are prayers like this at every town meeting:
The beauties of spring . . . are an expressive symbol of the new life of the risen Christ. The Holy Spirit was sent to the apostles at Pentecost so that they would be courageous witnesses of the Good News to different regions of the Mediterranean world and beyond. The Holy Spirit continues to be the inspiration and the source of strength and virtue, which we all need in the world of today. And so . . . [w]e pray this evening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as the Greece Town Board meets.Today's 5-4 decision, which allows such prayers so long as they're not part of a pattern of coercive and one-sided activity, hits so many of my standard tropes of Supreme Court reporting that I might as well flag them for you in advance:
- It's the five you expect, against the four you'd expect.
- Even among that five, the Chief Justice is insisting today's decision is not a big deal.
- But Justice Thomas would have gone further
- Indeed, because it's a religion-based case, there's going to be a lot of opinions from the Justices.
- And, gosh, Justice Kagan can really write.
Last point first, because I want to put this above the fold to highlight just how well she puts the reader in the place of a religious minority at one of these meetings:
A person goes to court, to the polls, to a naturalization ceremony—and a government official or his hand-picked minister asks her, as the first order of official business, to stand and pray with others in a way conflicting with her own religious beliefs. Perhaps she feels sufficient pressure to go along—to rise, bow her head, and join in whatever others are saying: After all, she wants,very badly, what the judge or poll worker or immigration official has to offer. Or perhaps she is made of stronger mettle, and she opts not to participate in what she does not believe—indeed, what would, for her, be something like blasphemy. She then must make known her dissent from the common religious view, and place herself apart from other citizens, as well as from the officials responsible for the invocations. And so a civic function of some kind brings religious differences to the fore: That public proceeding becomes (whether intentionally or not) an instrument for dividing her from adherents to the community’s majority religion, and for altering the very nature of her relationship with her government.
That is not the country we are, because that is not what our Constitution permits. Here, when a citizen stands before her government, whether to perform a service or request a benefit, her religious beliefs do not enter into the picture. See Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (Oct. 31, 1785), in 5 The Founders’ Constitution 85 (P. Kurland & R. Lerner eds. 1987) (“[O]pinion[s] in matters of religion . . . shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect [our] civil capacities”). ...
Let’s say that a Muslim citizen of Greece goes before the Board to share her views on policy or request some permit. Maybe she wants the Board to put up a traffic light at a dangerous intersection; or maybe she needs a zoning variance to build an addition on her home. But just before she gets to say her piece, a minister deputized by the Town asks her to pray “in the name of God’s only son Jesus Christ.” She must think—it is hardly paranoia, but only the truth—that Christian worship has become entwined with local governance. And now she faces a choice—to pray alongside the majority as one of that group or somehow to register her deeply felt difference. She is a strong person, but that is no easy call—especially given that the room is small and her every action (or inaction) will be noticed. She does not wish to be rude to her neighbors, nor does she wish to aggravate the Board members whom she will soon be trying to persuade. And yet she does not want to acknowledge Christ’s divinity, any more than many of her neighbors would want to deny that tenet. So assume she declines to participate with the others in the first act of the meeting—or even, as the majority proposes, that she stands up and leaves the room altogether. At the least, she becomes a different kind of citizen, one who will not join in the religious practice that the Town Board has chosen as reflecting its own and the community’s most cherished beliefs. And she thus stands at a remove, based solely on religion, from her fellow citizens and her elected representatives.
There are five opinions today, which I'll try to handle in a structural order, starting with Justice Kennedy (largely for the full five, though in part without Scalia/Thomas), because they won. Basically, the argument is, we've always allowed prayers like this in public governmental settings, citing the Marsh v Chambers (1982) case on legislative prayer, and they're more for the government officials than the spectators:
[T]he Establishment Clause must be interpreted “by reference to historical practices and understandings.” That the First Congress provided for the appointment of chaplains only days after approving language for the First Amendment demonstrates that the Framers considered legislative prayer a benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society. D. Currie, The Constitution in Congress: The Federalist Period 1789–1801, pp. 12–13 (1997). In the 1850’s, the judiciary committees in both the House and Senate reevaluated the practice of official chaplaincies after receiving petitions to abolish the office. The committees concluded that the office posed no threat of an establishment because lawmakers were not compelled to attend the daily prayer; no faith was excluded by law, nor any favored; and the cost of the chaplain’s salary imposed a vanishingly small burden on taxpayers. Marsh stands for the proposition that it is not necessary to define the precise boundary of the Establishment Clause where history shows that the specific practice is permitted.And it's too messy to get government involved in policing the line between prayers with too much Jesus, versus those which are vanilla enough for everyone:
To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact. Our Government is prohibited from prescribing prayers to be recited in our public institutions in order to promote a preferred system of belief or code of moral behavior. It would be but a few steps removed from that prohibition for legislatures 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. See Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577, 590 (1992) (“The suggestion that government may establish an official or civic religion as a means of avoiding the establishment of a religion with more specific creeds strikes us as a contradiction that cannot be accepted”); Schempp, 374 U. S., at 306 (Goldberg, J., concurring) (arguing that “untutored devotion to the concept of neutrality” must not lead to “a brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular”).But there are limits! Yes, the majority insists, there are:
Respondents argue, in effect, that legislative prayer may be addressed only to a generic God. The law and the Court could not draw this line for each specific prayer or seek to require ministers to set aside their nuanced and deeply personal beliefs for vague and artificial ones. There is doubt, in any event, that consensus might be reached as to what qualifies as generic or nonsectarian. Honorifics like “Lord of Lords” or “King of Kings” might strike a Christian audience as ecumenical, yet these titles may have no place in the vocabulary of other faith traditions. The difficulty, indeed the futility, of sifting sectarian from nonsectarian speech is illustrated by a letter that a lawyer for the respondents sent the town in the early stages of this litigation. The letter opined that references to “Father, God, Lord God, and the Almighty” would be acceptable in public prayer, but that references to “Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Trinity” would not. Perhaps the writer believed the former grouping would be acceptable to monotheists. Yet even seemingly general references to God or the Father might alienate nonbelievers or polytheists. Because it is unlikely that prayer will be inclusive beyond dispute, it would be unwise to adopt what respondents think is the next-best option: permitting those religious words, and only those words, that are acceptable to the majority, even if they will exclude some.
In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no constraints remain on its content. The relevant constraint derives from its place at the opening of legislative sessions, where it is meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage. Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function. If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.And as far as the lack of diversity from the town's prayer leaders? Eh!
The town made reasonable efforts to identify all of the congregations located within its borders and represented that it would welcome a prayer by any minister or layman who wished to give one. That nearly all of the congregations in town turned out to be Christian does not reflect an aversion or bias on the part of town leaders against minority faiths. So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.Justice Kennedy, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito move forward without Scalia/Thomas in their insistence that this was not coercive, because grownups aren't kids and sometimes you have to suck it up and deal:
The analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity. No such thing occurred in the town of Greece. Although board members themselves stood, bowed their heads, or made the sign of the cross during the prayer, they at no point solicited similar gestures by the public. Respondents point to several occasions where audience members were asked to rise for the prayer. These requests, however, came not from town leaders but from the guest ministers, who presumably are accustomed to directing their congregations in this way and might have done so thinking the action was inclusive, not coercive. ... Nothing in the record indicates that town leaders allocated benefits and burdens based on participation in the prayer, or that citizens were received differently depending on whether they joined the invocation or quietly declined. In no instance did town leaders signal disfavor toward nonparticipants or suggest that their stature in the community was in any way diminished....Justice Thomas would have gone further, (a) because he believes the Establishment Clause only applies to the federal government, and that states and local governments can have official religions, and (b) even were that not the case, the only coercion he and Justice Scalia (who concurs on this part) care about is official and not social:
In their declarations in the trial court, respondents stated that the prayers gave them offense and made them feel excluded and disrespected. Offense, however, does not equate to coercion. Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum, especially where, as here, any member of the public is welcome in turn to offer an invocation reflecting his or her own convictions. If circumstances arise in which the pattern and practice of ceremonial, legislative prayer is alleged to be a means to coerce or intimidate others, the objection can be addressed in the regular course. But the showing has not been made here, where the prayers neither chastised dissenters nor attempted lengthy disquisition on religious dogma. Courts remain free to review the pattern of prayers over time to determine whether they comport with the tradition of solemn, respectful prayer approved in Marsh, or whether coercion is a real and substantial likelihood. But in the general course legislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate. ...
In the town of Greece, the prayer is delivered during the ceremonial portion of the town’s meeting. Board members are not engaged in policymaking at this time, but in more general functions, such as swearing in new police officers, inducting high school athletes into the town hall of fame, and presenting proclamations to volunteers, civic groups, and senior citizens. It is a moment for town leaders to recognize the achievements of their constituents and the aspects of community life that are worth celebrating. By inviting ministers to serve as chaplain for the month, and welcoming them to the front of the room alongside civic leaders, the town is acknowledging the central place that religion, and religious institutions, hold in the lives of those present. Indeed, some congregations are not simply spiritual homes for town residents but also the provider of social services for citizens regardless of their beliefs. The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.
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.
At a minimum, there is no support for the proposition that the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment embraced wholly modern notions that the Establishment Clause is violated whenever the “reasonable observer” feels “subtle pressure,” or perceives governmental “endors[ement].” a For example, of the 37 States in existence when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified, 27 State Constitutions “contained an explicit reference to God in their preambles.” In addition to the preamble references, 30 State Constitutions contained other references to the divine, using such phrases as “ ‘Almighty God,’ ” “ ‘[O]ur Creator,’ ” and “ ‘Sovereign Ruler of the Universe.’ ” Moreover, the state constitutional provisions that prohibited religious “comp[ulsion]” made clear that the relevant sort of compulsion was legal in nature, of the same type that had characterized founding-era establishments. These provisions strongly suggest that, whatever nonestablishment principles existed in 1868, they included no concern for the finer sensibilities of the “reasonable observer.”Justice Kagan pens the principal dissent, and it's a hell of a thing worth reading. It begins:
Thus, to the extent coercion is relevant to the Establishment Clause analysis, it is actual legal coercion that counts—not the “subtle coercive pressures” allegedly felt by respondents in this case. The majority properly concludes that “[o]ffense . . . does not equate to coercion,” since “[a]dults often encounter speech they find disagreeable[,] and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum.” I would simply add, in light of the foregoing history of the Establishment Clause, that “[p]eer pressure, unpleasant as it may be, is not coercion” either.
For centuries now, people have come to this country from every corner of the world to share in the blessing of religious freedom. Our Constitution promises that they may worship in their own way, without fear of penalty or danger, and that in itself is a momentous offering. Yet our Constitution makes a commitment still more remarkable—that however those individuals worship, they will count as full and equal American citizens. A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim (and so forth)—each stands in the same relationship with her country, with her state and local communities, and with every level and body of government. So that when each person performs the duties or seeks the benefits of citizenship, she does so not as an adherent to one or another religion, but simply as an American.And what the court authorized here, she explains, goes way beyond what it has previously allowed:
I respectfully dissent from the Court’s opinion because I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality—the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian. I do not contend that principle translates here into a bright separationist line. To the contrary, I agree with the Court’s decision in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U. S. 783 (1983) , upholding the Nebraska Legislature’s tra-dition of beginning each session with a chaplain’s prayer. And I believe that pluralism and inclusion in a town hall can satisfy the constitutional requirement of neutrality; such a forum need not become a religion-free zone. But still, the Town of Greece should lose this case. The practice at issue here differs from the one sustained in Marsh because Greece’s town meetings involve participation by ordinary citizens, and the invocations given—directly to those citizens—were predominantly sectarian in content. Still more, Greece’s Board did nothing to recognize religious diversity: In arranging for clergy members to open each meeting, the Town never sought (except briefly when this suit was filed) to involve, accommodate, or in any way reach out to adherents of non-Christian religions. So month in and month out for over a decade, prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits. In my view, that practice does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.
Let’s count the ways in which these pictures diverge. First, the governmental proceedings at which the prayers occur differ significantly in nature and purpose. The Nebraska Legislature’s floor sessions—like those of the U. S. Congress and other state assemblies—are of, by, and for elected lawmakers. Members of the public take no part in those proceedings; any few who attend are spectators only, watching from a high-up visitors’ gallery. (In that respect, note that neither the Nebraska Legislature nor the Congress calls for prayer when citizens themselves participate in a hearing—say, by giving testimony relevant to a bill or nomination.) Greece’s town meetings, by contrast, revolve around ordinary members of the community. Each and every aspect of those sessions provides opportunities for Town residents to interact with public officials. And the most important parts enable those citizens to petition their government. In the Public Forum, they urge (or oppose) changes in the Board’s policies and priorities; and then, in what are essentially adjudicatory hearings, they request the Board to grant (or deny) applications for various permits, licenses, and zoning variances. So the meetings, both by design and in operation, allow citizens to actively participate in the Town’s governance—sharing concerns, airing grievances, andboth shaping the community’s policies and seeking their benefits.Moreover, she insists, this could have been fixed:
Second (and following from what I just said), the prayers in these two settings have different audiences. In the Nebraska Legislature, the chaplain spoke to, and only to, the elected representatives. Nebraska’s senators were adamant on that point in briefing Marsh, and the facts fully supported them: As the senators stated, “[t]he activity is a matter of internal daily procedure directed only at the legislative membership, not at [members of] the public.” The same is true in the U. S. Congress and, I suspect, in every other state legislature...
The very opposite is true in Greece: Contrary to the majority’s characterization, the prayers there are directed squarely at the citizens. Remember that the chaplain of the month stands with his back to the Town Board; his real audience is the group he is facing—the 10 or so members of the public, perhaps including children. And he typically addresses those people, as even the majority observes, as though he is “directing [his] congregation.” Ante, at 21. He almost always begins with some version of “Let us all pray together.” Often, he calls on everyone to stand and bow their heads, and he may ask them to recite a common prayer with him. He refers, constantly, to a collective “we”—to “our” savior, for example, to the presence of the Holy Spirit in “our” lives, or to “our brother the Lord Jesus Christ.” In essence, the chaplain leads, as the first part of a town meeting, a highly intimate (albeit relatively brief) prayer service, with the public serving as his congregation.
And third, the prayers themselves differ in their content and character. ... no one can fairly read the prayers from Greece’s Town meetings as anything other than explicitly Christian—constantly and exclusively so. From the time Greece established its prayer practice in 1999 until litigation loomed nine years later, all of its monthly chaplains were Christian clergy. And after a brief spell surrounding the filing of this suit (when a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess, and a Baha’i minister appeared at meetings), the Town resumed its practice of inviting only clergy from neighboring Protestant and Catholic churches. About two-thirds of the prayers given over this decade or so invoked “Jesus,” “Christ,” “Your Son,” or “the Holy Spirit”; in the 18 months before the record closed, 85% included those references. Many prayers contained elaborations of Christian doctrine or recitations of scripture. See, e.g., id., at 129a (“And in the life and death, resurrection and ascension of the Savior Jesus Christ, the full extent of your kindness shown to the unworthy is forever demonstrated”); id., at 94a (“For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given. And the government shall be upon his shoulder . . .”). And the prayers usually close with phrases like “in the name of Jesus Christ” or “in the name of Your son.”
None of this means that Greece’s town hall must be religion- or prayer-free. What the circumstances here demand is the recognition that we are a pluralistic people too. When citizens of all faiths come to speak to each other and their elected representatives in a legislative session, the government must take especial care to ensure that the prayers they hear will seek to include, rather than serve to divide. No more is required—but that much is crucial—to treat every citizen, of whatever religion, as an equal participant in her government.[Justice Breyer adds on a separate dissent to flag the narrow, fact-based reasons he joined the dissent—"the town made no significant effort to inform the area’s non-Christian houses of worship about the possibility of delivering an opening prayer," etc.]
And contrary to the majority’s (and Justice Alito’s) view, that is not difficult to do. If the Town Board had let its chaplains know that they should speak in nonsectarian terms, common to diverse religious groups, then no one would have valid grounds for complaint. Priests and ministers, rabbis and imams give such invocations all the time; there is no great mystery to the project. (And providing that guidance would hardly have caused the Board to run afoul of the idea that “[t]he First Amendment is not a majority rule,” as the Court (headspinningly) suggests; what does that is the Board’s refusal to reach out to members of minority religious groups.) Or if the Board preferred, it might have invited clergy of many faiths to serve as chaplains, as the majority notes that Congress does....
But Greece could not do what it did: infuse a participatory government body with one (and only one) faith, so that month in and month out, the citizens appearing before it become partly defined by their creed—as those who share, and those who do not, the community’s major-ity religious belief. In this country, when citizens go before the government, they go not as Christians or Muslims or Jews (or what have you), but just as Americans (or here, as Grecians). That is what it means to be an equal citizen, irrespective of religion. And that is what the Town of Greece precluded by so identifying itself with a single faith.
Justice Alito, with Scalia, concurred separately to respond to Kagan. First, to excuse the Christian-only nature of the prayers:
For the first four years of the practice, a clerical employee in the office would randomly call religious organizations listed in the Greece “Community Guide,” a local directory published by the Greece Chamber of Commerce, until she was able to find somebody willing to give the invocation....And as for the dissent's proposed fixes:
Apparently, all the houses of worship listed in the local Community Guide were Christian churches. That is unsurprising given the small number of non-Christians in the area. Although statistics for the town of Greece alone do not seem to be available, statistics have been compiled for Monroe County, which includes both the town of Greece and the city of Rochester. According to these statistics, of the county residents who have a religious affiliation, about 3% are Jewish, and for other non-Christian faiths, the percentages are smaller. There are no synagogues within the borders of the town of Greece, but there are several not far away across the Rochester border. Presumably, Jewish residents of the town worship at one or more of those synagogues, but because these synagogues fall outside the town’s borders, they were not listed in the town’s local directory, and the responsible town employee did not include them on her list. Nor did she include any other non-Christian house of worship.
Not only is there no historical support for the proposition that only generic prayer is allowed, but as our country has become more diverse, composing a prayer that is acceptable to all members of the community who hold religious beliefs has become harder and harder. It was one thing to compose a prayer that is acceptable to both Christians and Jews; it is much harder to compose a prayer that is also acceptable to followers of Eastern religions that are now well represented in this country. Many local clergy may find the project daunting, if not impossible, and some may feel that they cannot in good faith deliver such a vague prayer.And as for the diversity issue, he's willing to say "oops!" and move on:
In addition, if a town attempts to go beyond simply recommending that a guest chaplain deliver a prayer that is broadly acceptable to all members of a particular community (and the groups represented in different communities will vary), the town will inevitably encounter sensitive problems. Must a town screen and, if necessary, edit prayers before they are given? If prescreening is not required, must the town review prayers after they are delivered in order to determine if they were sufficiently generic? And if a guest chaplain crosses the line, what must the town do? Must the chaplain be corrected on the spot? Must the town strike this chaplain (and perhaps his or her house of worship) from the approved list?
If, as the principal dissent appears to concede, such a rotating system would obviate any constitutional problems, then despite all its high rhetoric, the principal dissent’s quarrel with the town of Greece really boils down to this: The town’s clerical employees did a bad job in compiling the list of potential guest chaplains. For that is really the only difference between what the town did and what the principal dissent is willing to accept. The Greece clerical employee drew up her list using the town directory instead of a directory covering the entire greater Rochester area. If the task of putting together the list had been handled in a more sophisticated way, the employee in charge would have realized that the town’s Jewish residents attended synagogues on the Rochester side of the border and would have added one or more synagogues to the list. But the mistake was at worst careless, and it was not done with a discriminatory intent. (I would view this case very differently if the omission of these synagogues were intentional.)And because so much of this is grounded in our nation's historical practices, Justice Alito writes, don't fear the boogeyman about which the dissenters warn:
I am troubled by the message that some readers may take from the principal dissent’s rhetoric and its highly imaginative hypotheticals. For example, the principal dissent conjures up the image of a litigant awaiting trial who is asked by the presiding judge to rise for a Christian prayer, of an official at a polling place who conveys the expectation that citizens wishing to vote make the sign of the cross before casting their ballots, and of an immigrant seeking naturalization who is asked to bow her head and recite a Christian prayer. Although I do not suggest that the implication is intentional, I am concerned that at least some readers will take these hypotheticals as a warning that this is where today’s decision leads—to a country in which religious minorities are denied the equal benefits of citizenship.I strongly encourage you to read the Court's opinions today. They're not hyper-technical, and very fact-and-history specific. And then SCOTUSblog has even more.
Nothing could be further from the truth. All that the Court does today is to allow a town to follow a practice that we have previously held is permissible for Congress and state legislatures. In seeming to suggest otherwise, the principal dissent goes far astray.