In a potentially far-reaching case, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday ruled that an upstate New York town's practice of opening government meetings with sectarian prayers does not violate the constitutional protection that separates church and state.
The court's decision (pdf) prompted immediate criticism among civil liberty groups and advocates of religious freedom.
“The constitutional requirement that church and state must be separated rests, in part, on the understanding that when government supports one religion over others, people who are not members of the favored religion are made to feel like outsiders by their government," said Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, which sponsored the lawsuit, said, “The Supreme Court just relegated millions of Americans—both believers and nonbelievers—to second-class citizenship."
In a 5-4 vote, the court ruled that the town of Greece, New York did not violate the U.S. Constitution by routinely beginning its council meetings with prayers that are almost entirely Christian in origin.
The township claims it does not favor a particular religion for delivering the invocation. Yet, every single person who delivered a prayer at these meetings was Christian until residents Susan Galloway (who is Jewish) and Linda Stephens (who is an atheist) filed a lawsuit in 2008, charging the prayers made them feel unwelcome.
Writing for the majority opinion, which the court's conservative judges agreed with, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued, "The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers," he wrote.
Kennedy referenced a 1983 precedent, in which the court ruled in favor of prayers before Nebraska legislature meetings, invoking the "traditional" nature of such invocations.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissenting opinion, argued: "Greece's town meetings involve participation by ordinary citizens, and the invocations given – directly to those citizens – were predominantly sectarian in content."
She continued, “I respectfully dissent from the Court’s opinion because I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality."
The SCOTUS ruling overturns a unanimous May 2012 decision by a lower court, which found that Greece's town prayers violated the U.S. Constitution.
“We are disappointed by today’s decision," said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "Official religious favoritism should be off-limits under the Constitution."