The best of today’s Supreme Court opinion on legislative prayer

Thousands of government bodies all over the United States — including the Minnesota House and Senate — open their meetings and sessions with a prayer. In this state a few years ago, a senator wanted Jesus out of legislative prayers.

Today, however, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the practice its blessing, even if the prayers are consistently Christian.

The sharply divided court ruled in the case of Greece, New York — near Rochester — which opens its town board meetings with a prayer. At each session, a member of the clergy recites a prayer. It’s open to whatever denomination is interested in participated.

Not surprisingly, Justice Anthony Kennedy was the swing vote and he wrote the opinion today that said the prayer does not constitute the government establishing religion.

Everybody seemed to have a little something to say in today’s decision, a fact that further saddens those of us who fantasize about Supreme Court justices debating in public.

“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.


“The decidedly Christian nature of these prayers must not be dismissed as the relic of a time when our Nation was less pluralistic than it is today. Congress continues to permit its appointed and visiting chaplains to express themselves in a religious idiom. It acknowledges our growing diversity not by proscribing sectarian content
but by welcoming ministers of many creeds.” — Justice Anthony Kennedy

“This opinion is full of Christian prayers, because those were the only invocations offered in the Town of Greece. But if my hypotheticals involved the prayer of some other religion, the outcome would be exactly the same. Suppose, for example, that government officials in a predominantly Jewish community asked a rabbi to begin all public functions with a chanting of the Sh’ma and V’ahavta. (“Hear O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. . . . Bind [these words] as a sign upon your hand; let them be a symbol before your eyes; inscribe them on the door posts of your house, and on your gates.”) Or assume officials in a mostly Muslim town requested a muezzin to commence such functions, over and over again, with a recitation of the Adhan. (“God is greatest, God is greatest.I bear witness that there is no deity but God. I bear witness that Muhammed is the Messenger of God.”) In any instance, the question would be why such government sponsored prayer of a single religion goes beyond the constitutional pale.
One glaring problem is that the government in all these hypotheticals has aligned itself with, and placed its imprimatur on, a particular religious creed.” — Justice Elena Kagan

“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.” — Justice Samuel Alito

“The fact that nearly all of the prayers given reflected a single denomination takes on significance. That significance would have been the same had all the prayers been Jewish, or Hindu, or Buddhist, or of any other denomination. The significance is that, in a context where religious minorities exist and where more could easily have been done to include their participation,the town chose to do nothing. It could, for example, have posted its policy of permitting anyone to give an invocation on its website,, which provides dates and times of upcoming town board meetings along with minutes of prior meetings. It could have announced inclusive policies at the beginning of its board meetings, just before introducing the month’s prayer giver. It could have provided information to those houses of worship of all faiths that lie just outside its borders and include citizens of Greece among their members. Given that the town could easily have made these or similar efforts but chosenot to, the fact that all of the prayers (aside from the 2008 outliers) were given by adherents of a single religion reflects a lack of effort to include others.” — Justice Stephen Breyer

“Thus, to the extent coercion is relevant to the Establishment Clause analysis, it is actual legal coercion thatcounts—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.” — Justice Clarence Thomas