Legislative Prayer Ruling Does Not Permit Prayers by Local Lawmakers

  • August 7, 2014

In the recent Greece v. Galloway decision, the U.S. Supreme Court expanded the types of opening prayers or invocations that may be given at public meetings of legislative bodies.  According to the Court, clergy or community members can deliver sectarian prayers before municipal and county boards, councils, and commissions.  However, a federal court in Virginia has just determined that the Greece decision does not give carte blanche for invocations by members of a Board of Supervisors at public meetings.

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Based on the Greece decision, a supervisor asked the court to revoke an order barring sectarian prayers by Board members at public meetings.  Due to significant factual differences between the Greece decision and this case, Hudson v. Pittsylvania County, the court refused.

In his decision, Judge Michael Urbanski indicated that the Greece decision’s overarching principle is that government officials “cannot dictate the content of prayers offered at local government meetings.” But that would be the exact result of revoking the order.  Unlike the Greece case, having supervisors offer the invocations would deny people of other faiths that opportunity.  Also unlike Greece, supervisors often direct citizens to participate in prayers by asking them to stand for invocations.

Based on these factual distinctions, the court appropriately concluded that “the active role of the … Board of Supervisors in leading the prayers, and, importantly dictating their content, is of constitutional dimension and falls outside the prayer practices approved in Town of Greece.”