The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in Greece v. Galloway has raised many questions about the constitutionality and appropriateness of legislative prayer.
The Court’s decision expanded the types of opening prayers or invocations that may be given at public meetings of local legislative bodies, including municipal and county boards, councils, and commissions. According to the Court, these prayers may be given by public officials, clergy, or ordinary citizens.
However, the Court’s decision does not require any kind of opening prayer before local legislative bodies.
In our pluralistic society, prayers at meetings of local legislative bodies inevitably cause some community members to feel isolated or excluded, and divide communities along religious lines. They may be permissible, but they are a bad idea.
The Anti-Defamation League strongly discourages local public officials from instituting prayers - sectarian or non-sectarian - at public meetings.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are local legislative bodies now required to open public meetings with sectarian prayers?
No. The Court’s decision does not require local legislative bodies to open meetings with sectarian or non-sectarian prayers.
Are there any limitations on the types of prayers that can be given at public meetings of local legislative bodies?
Yes. There are two limitations. First, the local legislative body must have a non-discrimination policy as to prayer givers. This means that a public official, clergy member or community member cannot be denied the opportunity to give the opening prayer or invocation based on his or her faith tradition, including minority religious beliefs or atheism. Second, the practice of a local legislative body cannot result in a “pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray impermissible government purpose.”
Is a local community member who is obligated, needs or wants to attend a meeting of local legislative body required to participate in or remain in the room for an opening prayer?
No. The Court’s decision in no way requires a community member to participate in the prayer or remain in the room during the prayer. In fact, it would be unconstitutional for a public official to require a community member to participate in the prayer, to require a community member to be present in the room for the prayer, or to treat a community member adversely for any reason related to the prayer.
Should local legislative bodies open meetings with prayers?
No. Although the decision allows local legislative bodies to open public meetings with prayers, such a practice can be insensitive and counterproductive. Sectarian prayers are totally appropriate in houses of worship and other private settings. But at town councils they can be divisive and convey a message of exclusion to community members of other faiths or non-believers. Community members should never feel pressured to participate in a religious activity contrary to their religious beliefs. If a local legislative body seeks to open meetings with some solemnizing, ceremonial act, a moment of silence where government officials and the public can silently pray or meditate, if they choose to do so, is a more appropriate alternative.
Does the Court’s decision authorize sectarian or non-sectarian opening prayers at local public school board meetings?
No. The decision only applies to meetings of local legislative bodies. A school board is distinct from a local legislative body because it is affiliated with a public school and school-age children frequently attend and participate in meetings. Local school boards are subject to much more restrictive constitutional standards that prohibit any kind of opening prayers – whether sectarian or non-sectarian.
Does the Court’s decision authorize school-sponsored prayers in public schools?
No. The decision is limited to the issue of prayer before legislative bodies. It in no way impacts long-standing U.S. Supreme Court decisions strictly prohibiting school-sponsored prayer or other religious practices in our nation’s public schools.