On Monday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Town of Greece v Galloway. The case involved two residents of Greece in upstate New York near Rochester. Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens complained that local council meetings always opened with a chaplain doing a prayer, a practice that began in 1999. The prayers were always a Christian oriented invocation.
Galloway and Stephens, described as Jewish and atheist, sued after their complaints were all but ignored, with the council having only four meetings out of twelve with invocations of different faiths. They argued that the city council was endorsing a particular faith, a violation of the First Amendment. A trial court ruled in favor of the town, saying it did not intentionally exclude non-Christians and that the prayers were not presented in order to proselytize or promote a particular religion. An appeals court disagreed, saying the repeated use of only Christian prayers was tantamount to the town endorsing Christianity.
On Monday, the Supreme Court reversed the appeals court’s decision.
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” This prohibits the government from establishing an official religion, as well as favoring one religion over another, or forcing religion on the non-religious.
The majority in the 5-4 decision focused on the difference between “coercion” and “endorsement.” In writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the invitation to ministers was an acknowledgment of the” central place that religion and religious institutions hold in the lives of those present.” They also pointed out that opening legislative sessions with prayer had a long standing tradition in American politics, so much so that even the Obama Administration submitted a brief in support of the Town of Greece. The issue with this case, however, was whether the particular focus on a specific religious doctrine violated the Constitutional rights of the non-religious, especially since these meetings were open to the public.
The SCOTUS ruled it does not.
In stark contrast with previous SCOTUS rulings, the majority ruled that the content of the prayers could include references to a deity or deities of the faith and did not need to include references to multiple faiths. The inclusion of these references was not forcing anyone to follow a particular faith, they ruled. Furthermore, if people were offended by the references, they had the option to ignore or walk out. “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable,” Justice Kennedy wrote.
In other words, non-Christians weren’t being forced to join a religion.
The dissenting minority, made up of three Jewish justices and a non-practicing Catholic, pointed out that the majority’s opinion ignored the endorsement part of the First Amendment. In the dissent, written by Justice Elena Kagan, they suggested the majority’s opinion would be different if the town of Greece had a majority Muslim or Jewish community. The ruling, they said, essentially allowed for religious favoritism and ignored the very real and subtle ways that religion encroaches on the everyday lives of citizens. Coercion doesn’t have to be an overt or direct act. It can happen in the most innocuous ways. She demonstrated this with a hypothetical.
“Let’s say that a Muslim citizen of [Greece, New York] goes before the Board to share her views on policy or request some permit. Maybe she wants the Board to put up a traffic light at a dangerous intersection; or maybe she needs a zoning variance to build an addition on her home. But just before she gets to say her piece, a minister deputized by the Town asks her to pray “in the name of God’s only son Jesus Christ.” She must think — it is hardly paranoia, but only the truth — that Christian worship has become entwined with local governance. And now she faces a choice — to pray alongside the majority as one of that group or somehow to register her deeply felt difference. She is a strong person, but that is no easy call — especially given that the room is small and her every action (or inaction) will be noticed. She does not wish to be rude to her neighbors, nor does she wish to aggravate the Board members whom she will soon be trying to persuade. And yet she does not want to acknowledge Christ’s divinity, any more than many of her neighbors would want to deny that tenet. So assume she declines to participate with the others in the first act of the meeting — or even, as the majority proposes, that she stands up and leaves the room altogether. At the least, she becomes a different kind of citizen, one who will not join in the religious practice that the Town Board has chosen as reflecting its own and the community’s most cherished beliefs. And she thus stands at a remove, based solely on religion, from her fellow citizens and her elected representatives.”
In response to the ruling, the town supervisor of Greece, NY said the prayer practice would continue. He reiterated Justice Kennedy’s opinion, saying that anyone who felt uncomfortable did not have to participate and could have a quiet moment of reflection. He also said that if others of different faiths wanted to lead a prayer, they were welcome to and would be accommodated – depending on the board’s schedule.