[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] 5-4 Monday in Town of Greece v. Galloway [SCOTUSblog backgrounder] that the practice of opening town meetings with a prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause [JURIST backgrounder] of the First Amendment [text]. The US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled [JURIST report] in 2012 that the New York town’s practice amounted to an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion. In an opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court reversed that ruling:
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 to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs. The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
Justice Stephen Breyer filed a dissenting opinion. Justice Elena Kagan also filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
The Supreme Court agreed last May to rule in the case and heard oral arguments [JURIST reports] in November. Town board meetings in Greece, New York [official website] were admittedly led with prayer, typically Christian-based, although the town maintained that any faith was welcome to lead the council in prayer. Due to this stipulation, the plaintiffs alleged that this practice violated the Establishment Clause and received a summary judgment dismissal in district court. The Second Circuit overturned that judgment and ruled that while prayer may not be disallowed at the meetings, the current standards reflected a Christian viewpoint.