What You Need to Know About the Supreme Court’s Ruling on Government Prayer

“The Supreme Court has again affirmed that Americans are free to pray,” said David Cortman, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), after the Court, in a 5-4 ruling, determined that it is constitutional for Christian prayers to be offered at the beginning of legislative meetings.

The lawsuit originated when two individuals, Susan Galloway, a Jewish woman, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, complained that all of the prayers delivered at town council meetings in Greece, N.Y., between 1999 and 2007 were explicitly Christian. According to the Pew Research Center, “they felt both coerced to participate and isolated during the ceremony.”

But, as Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority decision, indicates, the majority of invocations were Christian in nature because most of the clergy and laypeople who volunteered to pray were from the town of Greece, where a majority of churches are Christian. Kennedy writes, “That nearly all of the congregations in town turned out to be Christian does not reflect an aversion or bias on the part of town leaders against minority faiths.”

By defending the right of the town council in Greece, N.Y., to include specifically Christian prayers at the outset of their sessions, the Supreme Court reversed a decision by the Second Court of Appeals that such sectarian invocations were unconstitutional.

Whereas the Second Court of Appeals judged that references to Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, or Jewish scriptures represented the favoring of one religion over another, the Supreme Court denied that references to a particular creed signal official government sanction of that creed.

Last year, the Obama administration submitted an amicus brief, in which it defended the practice of public prayer at Greece’s council meetings, because, even though the prayers contained Christian language, they neither proselytized nor disparaged other faiths. The Supreme Court took a similar stance in this case, ruling that Christian prayers — as well as other sectarian prayers — do not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Many evangelical Christians are praising the Court’s decision, a ruling that bolsters the free exercise of religion, because it allows Americans to offer sincere prayers according to their consciences rather than being forced to conform to a generalized nonsectarian prayer that, stripped of all specificity, is rendered lifeless.

Groups that are criticizing the outcome of Town of Greece v. Galloway, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, insist that the Supreme Court is mistaken. According to this perspective, sectarian prayers offend nonbelievers, alienate people of other faiths, create a culture of division rather than pluralism, and represent the endorsement of one religion over others. Rev. Barry W. Lynn remarks, “Government can’t serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others. That sends the clear message that some are second-class citizens based on what they believe about religion.”

If, however, the Supreme Court would have ruled against the town of Greece by requiring all public prayers to be nonsectarian, then the Court would have effectively established a religion — a generalized religion deemed acceptable by the state. In such a scenario, the Court would begin to judge the permissibility and impermissibility of certain prayers based on whatever standards they set, which would serve, in essence, as an officially sanctioned, nonsectarian state religion. Thus, paradoxically, if Americans United for Separation of Church and State had its way, the state would establish a religion: a nebulous theism, devoid of meaningful content, professed by all, yet believed by none.

By intervening in religious affairs and sponsoring an official civil religion in this manner, Justice Kennedy writes that the Court “would act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.”

Justice Kennedy continues, “Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian.”

As a result of this decision, Americans will continue to be free to express their religion, as guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. The Supreme Court’s ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway not only protects conscience rights, but also promotes pluralism by enabling Americans to pray humbly and sincerely according to their own beliefs. Anyone who voluntarily offers an invocation need not conform to someone else’s religion or to a vapid state religion.

The example of the founders: a history of legislative prayer

In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court analyzed the actions of the founders in an effort to infer their intent in writing the Establishment Clause. Since Christian prayers were routinely spoken at legislative meetings during the founding era — both before and after the passing of the First Amendment — the majority of Supreme Court Justices deduced that the authors of the constitution did not find the practice objectionable.

The Continental Congress opened with a prayer that was said “in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ.” In addition, the first Congress routinely prayed at the beginning of its sessions, including those during which the Bill of Rights was drafted.

At George Washington’s inauguration, both the House and the Senate sang “Te Deum,” a prayer replete with Christian themes. In John Adams’ thanksgiving proclamation, the second president of the United States prayed that God, “through the Redeemer of the World,” would “remit all our offenses and … incline us by His Holy Spirit to that sincere repentance and reformation.”

“Any test the Court adopts,” Kennedy writes, “must acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the Framers and has withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change.” As long as these sectarian prayers that open legislative meetings do not denounce other faiths or actively attempt to convert listeners, they are constitutional.

Justice Anthony Kennedy notes, “Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of different faith.” In so doing, Americans will exhibit the virtue expressed by Samuel Adams when he said he was willing to “hear a prayer from any gentleman of Piety and Virtue, who was at the same time a friend to his country.”

What’s the purpose of praying before public meetings?

The practice of public prayer is a time-honored American tradition that acknowledges that government is limited. Ultimate authority does not belong in the hands of the state, but in the hands of God, whose law is the standard of perfect justice. By requesting the assistance of the Almighty God before legislative discussions and other communal deliberations, we are bearing witness to a transcendent law — an objective moral standard — with which we are seeking to align ourselves.

According to Justice Kennedy: “Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government.”

Legislative prayers, then, cultivate a persistent awareness of our obligations to God, which are greater than those we have to the state. It is proper that our prayers to God, who governs the conscience, derive from the conscience, in a spirit of sincerity and truth.

What are the implications of this decision?

Explaining why he is not cheering the Supreme Court decision, Carl E. Esbeck writes in Christianity Today that the ruling may invite mischief, and expresses three concerns. First, Esbeck cites the Wiccan priestess who prayed to Athena and Apollo at a Greece town council meeting in 2008. In addition, he maintains, a wide range of polytheists and New Agers may rush to invoke their divinities at government meetings, while atheists may volunteer to pray simply to mock the practice. Still, despite Esbeck’s concern, it is better to risk sporadic mischief — in the form of Wiccan prayers — than to allow the state to control the people’s religious sentiments through the strict regulation of spiritual expression.

Second, Esbeck believes Christians are generating mistrust when they “employ the state to promote Christian prayers.” However, an honest prayer offered to God by a sincere believer acting according to his conscience is not a promotion of Christianity. This ruling merely enables citizens to express the faith to which they adhere.

Third, Esbeck fears that, since legislative prayers can now contain Christian language, clergy will find it more difficult to speak prophetically against unjust or corrupt practices, which are preceded by a time of prayer. Yet, the very practice of praying before legislative sessions was instituted as a reminder that we operate under a higher authority, perfectly just and impartial, to whom we are all accountable. Therefore, acknowledgement of an ultimate Reality provides the very basis for criticizing unjust laws.

Biblical Insights

Ceremonial prayers that do not express sincere belief are simply ineffectual traditions (John 4:23-24).

One day some Pharisees and teachers of religious law arrived from Jerusalem to confront Jesus. They noticed that some of Jesus’ disciples failed to follow the usual Jewish ritual of hand washing before eating. (The Jews, especially the Pharisees, do not eat until they have poured water over their cupped hands, as required by their ancient traditions. Similarly, they eat nothing bought from the market unless they have immersed their hands in water. This is but one of many traditions they have clung to — such as their ceremony of washing cups, pitchers, and kettles.) So the Pharisees and teachers of religious law asked him, “Why don’t your disciples follow our age-old custom? For they eat without first performing the hand-washing ceremony.” Jesus replied, “You hypocrites! Isaiah was prophesying about you when he said, ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far away. Their worship is a farce, for they replace God’s commands with their own man-made teachings.’ For you ignore God’s specific laws and substitute your own traditions.” (Mark 7:1-8)

Throughout the gospels, Jesus repeatedly criticizes the Pharisees for believing that righteousness stems from strict obedience to ceremonial traditions rather than good deeds deriving from genuine love of God and neighbor. In this particular incident, in which the Pharisees are appalled by Jesus’ failure to adhere to ancient hand-washing customs, Jesus says, “Listen and try to understand. You are not defiled by what you eat; you are defiled by what you say and do” (Mark 7:15).

In the case of legislative prayer, which has become an American tradition, it is important to keep two things in mind.

First, the ceremonial prayer itself is not all that God requires of us. For God does not simply require the sacrifice of a minute-long prayer, but the exercise of justice and mercy resulting from honest deliberation and a sincere expression of goodwill. Just as God is not satisfied with an outward act of worship on Sunday morning that fails to guide our actions from Monday to Saturday, God is not satisfied with an outward act of worship at the beginning of a town council meeting that does not serve as a guiding principle for the rest of the agenda. There is nothing wrong with a ceremonial act, as long as we do not forget the purpose and the power of that very act.

Second, the Pharisees often followed ancient custom unthinkingly, out of mere habit.

The Supreme Court, by encouraging Americans to pray sincerely according to their beliefs, is reinvigorating a tradition that — were it forced to become vague and general — would have grown increasingly dull. A genuine prayer spoken by a genuine believer is more likely to positively direct subsequent conversation than a disingenuous prayer by a hesitant member of the clergy addressing an unspecified deity and concerned more about pleasing his audience than requesting divine guidance.

While the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of religious expression is a positive development, it is dependent on Christians to not only seek divine guidance, through the mediation of Jesus Christ, in a public setting, but to continually express the fruit of divine guidance in word and deed. As Jesus informed the Pharisees, ceremonies mean very little if they do not result in godly actions.