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Torres: How to handle prayer before government meetings

June 18, 2014
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By Lori Torres

torres-lori.jpg Torres

The Supreme Court of the United States recently issued another opinion on the constitutionality of prayer before a government meeting. The court found the prayer practice constitutional on a 5-4 vote, but also made some clear statements that the permissibility is based on the particular facts and the setting. In Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, et al., 12-696, 572 U.S. _______ (2014), the court found that the brief prayer offered by rotating ministers of churches in the town conformed with the requirements of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The framers of our Constitution considered legislative prayer a way to add gravity to public business and to remind lawmakers of their duty to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose. Even the first Congress appointed and paid official chaplains, and the practice has been carried on ever since.

And yet, there have been prayer practices that have been struck down. So how do governments work to ensure that their practices are such that they are wholly within the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause? Following is a list of factors considered by the majority opinion, as well as the primary dissent.

1. Be inclusive. Invite officiants of different faiths. Have a methodology, such as everyone listed in the phone book is invited on a rotating basis, or every church in the city, town, etc., is welcome on different meeting nights. If you have no Muslim or Jewish congregations, for example, in or near your municipality, it isn’t necessary to go outside your city or town. But if houses of worship are located within driving distance, you should consider inviting nearby officiants, as you can assume that some of those members probably live in your city or county. Make reasonable efforts to identify all faiths in reasonable proximity, and welcome anyone who wishes to give such a prayer. Such policy might be placed on the website or on a bulletin board.

2. Don’t approve the content of the prayers. Each religion is entitled to invoke the deity or power in which they believe. Prayers need not be nonsectarian (generic, without affiliation to a particular religion). Neutrality of content is not required. However, prayer givers should be counseled that the prayer opportunity is not to be exploited to proselytize, advance or disparage any other person, faith or belief. Prayer that is solemn, respectful in tone and causing lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends serves a legitimate function. Prayers that denigrate non-believers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion fall short of that purpose. A pattern of such prayer will be fatal to its continued practice. While the government entity can’t be sure of what any minister may say, an isolated incident of prayer outside the bounds won’t necessarily doom the practice. Our pluralistic society is acknowledged not by proscribing content, but by welcoming ministers of many creeds.

3. Prayer is best done during the “opening ceremonies” of a legislative meeting. Often, the Pledge of Allegiance and opening prayer are the first items after a meeting is gaveled to order. It fits in well with ceremonial matters, special recognitions, etc., but not during adjudicatory parts or policy-making portions of the meeting. For example, prayer before a zoning petition is presented for approval is probably not wise. Don’t include the prayer before adjudicatory bodies (for example, court sessions, though the Supreme Court has long opened its sessions with “God save the United States and this honorable Court”).

4. Consider the prayer to be directed to the legislative body members, not the public. Even the direction the minister faces might impact to whom the prayer is directed. While the minister in Town of Greece faced the public, it was a point of contention for the dissent. Avoid the issue, and consider the prayer exercise an internal act with the principal audience being the lawmakers, not the public attendees.

5. Do not require participation. Neither the municipal board nor the prayer giver should direct or require the public to participate, single out dissidents or indicate that decisions might be influenced by a person’s participation or acquiescence in the prayer. People should be and feel free to enter after the prayer, leave during the prayer, sit rather than stand (if invited to stand), or otherwise feel free to ignore the invitation to prayer. Even though a member of the public may be offended or feel excluded by such prayer, disagreeable speech is not actionable as an Establishment Clause violation. Prayers should not, however, chastise dissenters nor attempt lengthy dogmatic conversion. It is a basic principle that government cannot coerce its citizens to support or participate in any religion or its exercise. Where the pattern of prayer does so, it will not be permitted.

These simple steps can preserve a government’s prayer practice within the bounds of the Establishment Clause. They can’t ensure a lack of complaints, the absence of litigation or other objections, but they address the writing justices’ concerns. “From the earliest days of the Nation, these invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds. These ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion. Even those who disagree as to religious doctrine may find common ground in the desire to show respect for the divine in all aspects of their lives and being. Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.” Town of Greece, (KENNEDY J.), 572 U.S. ______, (2014) (slip op., at 16).•

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Lori Torres is an attorney in Ice Miller’s Public Affairs Group. She concentrates her practice in the areas of public affairs, public policy planning, economic development, and labor and employment, with a focus on state wage and hour issues and real estate. She can be contacted at 317-236-2291 or at lori.torres@icemiller.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author.
 

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  1. Ah yes... Echoes of 1963 as a ghostly George Wallace makes his stand at the Schoolhouse door. We now know about the stand of personal belief over service to all constituents at the Carter County Clerk door. The results are the same, bigotry unable to follow the directions of the courts and the courts win. Interesting to watch the personal belief take a back seat rather than resign from a perception of local power to make the statement.

  2. An oath of office, does it override the conscience? That is the defense of overall soldier who violates higher laws, isnt it? "I was just following orders" and "I swore an oath of loyalty to der Fuhrer" etc. So this is an interesting case of swearing a false oath and then knowing that it was wrong and doing the right thing. Maybe they should chop her head off too like the "king's good servant-- but God's first" like St Thomas More. ...... We wont hold our breath waiting for the aclu or other "civil liberterians" to come to her defense since they are all arrayed on the gay side, to a man or should I say to a man and womyn?

  3. Perhaps we should also convene a panel of independent anthropological experts to study the issues surrounding this little-known branch of human sacrifice?

  4. I'm going to court the beginning of Oct. 2015 to establish visitation and request my daughters visits while she is in jail. I raised my grandchild for the first two and half years. She was born out of wedlock and the father and his adopted mother wantwd her aborted, they went as far as sueing my daughter for abortion money back 5mo. After my grandchild was born. Now because of depression and drug abuse my daughter lost custody 2 and a half years ago. Everyting went wrong in court when i went for custody my lawyer was thrown out and a replacment could only stay 45 min. The judge would not allow a postponement. So the father won. Now he is aleinating me and my daughter. No matter the amount of time spent getting help for my daughter and her doing better he runs her in the ground to the point of suicide because he wants her to be in a relationship with him. It is a sick game of using my grandchild as a pawn to make my daughter suffer for not wanting to be with him. I became the intervener in the case when my daughter first got into trouble. Because of this they gave me her visitation. Im hoping to get it again there is questions of abuse on his part and I want to make sure my grandchild is doing alright. I really dont understand how the parents have rights to walk in and do whatever they want when the refuse to stand up and raise the child at first . Why should it take two and a half years to decide you want to raise your child.The father used me so he could finish college get a job and stop paying support by getting custody. Support he was paying my daughter that I never saw.

  5. Pence said when he ordered the investigation that Indiana residents should be troubled by the allegations after the video went viral. Planned Parenthood has asked the government s top health scientists at the National Institutes of Health to convene a panel of independent experts to study the issues surrounding the little-known branch of medicine.

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