Will the ubiquitous “moment of silence” at the start of local school board and government meeting be replaced with a prayer?
A split decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday may seem to pave the way for such religious expressions, but local experts caution there are a lot of caveats to inviting a prayer by a clergyman.
In a 5-4 vote along well-documented ideological lines, the court ruled Monday that a town board in Greece, New York — just northwest of Rochester — did not violate the U.S. Constitution by starting public meetings with a prayer made by a “chaplain of the month.” The ruling is seen by many as opening a door for local governments to have sectarian prayers before meetings.
But two local college professors warned the ruling isn’t nearly broad enough to make such a decision safe from legal challenges.
“This is not an open-ended ‘you can do whatever you want’ in terms of prayer leading into these public events,” Wilkes University Political Science Chair Kyle Kreider said. “The justices said a court should look at the particular facts in each case.”
In making the ruling, “the court chastised Greece for not having more variety among the denominations” offering public prayer prior to meetings, University of Scranton Political Science professor William Parente said.
Kreider said the circumstances in Greece have to be considered. The board would invite religious leaders to offer a prayer, and because it is a predominantly Christian community, “at every town board meeting a Christian minister would lead the community in prayer.”
A lawsuit was filed arguing this violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment — cited as “separation of church and state” by some, though those words don’t appear in the Constitution.
Monday’s decision “has to be looked at in the context of what the Supreme Court decided in 1983,” Kreider said. Then, “the court upheld a prayer prior to a legislative session in Nebraska. The court said that was constitutional. So that was kind of the context in which the court decided this case: Is this a similar prayer?”
A key difference pointed out by dissenting justices was that the Nebraska case involved a prayer for the legislators, not the public, Kreider said. In Greece, the clerics faced the crowd and spoke the prayer to them. Justice Elena Kagan said this could serve as a type of coercion, making people who have business with the board uncomfortable if they don’t stand, bow their heads or otherwise acknowledge the prayer.
“The majority said they were free to leave if they felt offended,” Kreider said.
Another key point to consider: The court left open the option for a challenge if a government body in a more religiously diverse community did the same thing done in Greece.
“For other communities that are more religiously pluralistic, they would have to debate and discuss this, and it may not be something politically wise to do,” Kreider said.
Locally, the practice of starting school board, borough, city council and other government meetings with a Pledge of Allegiance and moment of silence is so ubiquitous as to feel universal.
The ruling may give local officials “more room to experiment if they want to go down this road,” Kreider said. “They are on more solid footing today than they were two days ago.”
But the dissenting justices’ “interpretation was quite different than the majority,” he added, which means in the future “lower courts might rule differently” in cases with even subtle differences.
“What you are going to get, in my opinion, is in communities across the country there are going to test the water,” Kreider said. “They are going to find out how far they think this thing goes. It will open more doors, and open more legal battles.”
Parente said the narrow ruling suggests prayer at such meetings will be safe as long as the government body makes sure people of various religions and faith get a chance to offer the prayer, and that they keep the prayers general, avoiding references distinctive to one religion.
“You can’t have a priest at every meeting,” Parente said. “You want a rabbi, you want a Muslim, you want a little variety.”
Kreider said the narrow split decision, common on many establishment clause issues these days, shows that the Supreme Court reflects the public at large.
“The justices themselves, just like Americans in general, are kind of split on what the government can do in honoring and respecting religion,” he said.