On the 1st Amendment: Town of Greece v. Galloway

5-Cent Explanation:  Two residents from the town of Greece, NY, filed a federal suit claiming the town board’s practice of starting monthly meetings with a prayer delivered by a “chaplain of the month” was a violation of the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

10-Cent Explanation:  In 1999, officials in Greece, NY, initiated the practice of opening monthly public meetings of the town board with a prayer conducted by a “chaplain of the month.”  Although the program offered the distinction of leading the benediction to practitioners of all faiths and the non-religious, nearly all of those delivering a prayer have been Christian.

Local residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens brought a legal challenge in federal court on the grounds that the practice violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment by endorsing one religion over others and over those who choose not to practice any faith.

In a May 2012 opinion, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that prayers starting a legislative session were not inherently unconstitutional but looked at whether the process initiated by a town “result[ed] in a perspective that [was] substantially neutral amongst creeds.”  The three-judge panel held that the town of Greece had violated the First Amendment by instituting a prayer-selection process that promoted “an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint.”

The town appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court and their petition was granted in May of 2013.

With oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway before the Court, there is ample precedent on either side of the issue concerning the acknowledgement of religion in government-related settings.

Supporters of the town’s practice rely heavily on Marsh v. Chambers, a SC challenge to the chaplaincy practice at the start of the Nebraska legislature’s sessions.  In the 1983 decision, a 6-member majority upheld legislative prayer as part of the nation’s “unique history” and “a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”

Those challenging the prayer in this case have cited County of Allegheny v. ACLU as one case for the justices to consider.  The 1989 ruling declared unconstitutional a governmental “allegiance to a particular sect or creed” in a city’s nativity display.

We’ve posted two videos for your viewing pleasure because, really, who can get too much 1st amendment coverage.  One video is from the Federalist Society and the other is from the Smithsonian Foundation (both come to us thanks to C-SPAN).

Link to the oral arguments is here, compliments of Oyez.

Decision:  On May 5, 2014 the SCOTUS issued a 5-4 decision siding with the Town of Greece.  The majority opinion* was written by Justice Kennedy – the decisive swing voter in this case – and joined by the openly religious justices Roberts, Alito, Thomas, and Scalia.

Were the prayers given at the start of public town hall meetings an endorsement of a seemingly pro-Christian religion?  No, said the majority.  The majority’s penchant for stare decisis made the petitioner’s argument convincing enough not to deviate from the Marsh decision.  History and traditions in the United States are embedded with religious practices like prayer.  Going with the history argument can be a tough sell, but in this case, as in the Marsh case, the majority didn’t find evidence the prayers either overtly endorsed one religion over others or coerced any townspeople into Christian faith, practices, or beliefs.  “The prayers in Marsh were consistent with the First Amendment not because they espoused only a generic theism but because the Nation’s history and tradition have shown that prayer in this limited context could “coexis[t] with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”

Perhaps it was the invitation extended to the local chapter of Wiccans that swayed the majority of Greece’s efforts to demonstrate an effective effort to achieve balance in their invocations.  Alas, invitations to all the Wiccans, Satan worshippers, Jews and gentiles alike were not effective enough to convince the minority that Greece achieved such a balance.  Writing for the minority, Justice Kagan backed this idea up by saying “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.”

*Check out the long form version of the decision here where portions of the majority were not joined by some members.