In a significant decision, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld the constitutionality of the practice of legislative prayer in the landmark religious freedom case Town of Greece v. Galloway. After a lower court decision forbade the Town of Greece, New York from starting council meetings with a prayer from volunteer members of different faiths, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the decision. Today, the Supreme Court did just that and now the Town of Greece can continue its historic practice of legislative prayer, a tradition that traces back to our nation’s Founding Era.
“The Court’s landmark decision today echoes the wisdom of the Founders,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty: “Not only did the Court uphold the centuries-old practice of legislative prayer, it also started the work of bringing the entire law of church and state onto a firmer foundation in the words of the Constitution.”
In its decision, the Court acknowledged that the lessons of history can no longer be ignored when deciding Establishment Clause cases: “Any test the Court adopts must acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the Framers and has withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change.” The Becket Fund’s friend-of-the-court brief had argued that the Court should take a historical approach to the Establishment Clause. The Court also cited materials the Becket Fund presented to the Court in its friend-of-the-court brief.
In the Town of Greece, New York, volunteer members of all faiths, from Christians, Jews, Bah’s, and Wiccans, have participated in the tradition by leading an invocation. During our nation’s beginnings, the Founders saw legislative prayer as “a natural outflow of their political philosophy of limited government and inalienable, God-given rights.” By hearing prayer before a government meeting, our political leaders – both then and now – were reminded of the limits of their authority, as well as the divine source of the inalienable rights which belong to the public they serve.
This is the first time the Court has addressed the constitutionality of legislative prayer in decades. In today’s decision, the Supreme Court clarified that permitting individuals of diverse faith backgrounds to come together in prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
“As a people we will always have disagreements about religion,” said Rassbach. “But that reality cannot be used as an excuse to banish religious activity entirely from public life. The Founders recognized that prayer is not a trivial matter, but plays a central role in the life of our nation. All the Court did today is repeat what the Founders said so many years ago.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions-from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For 18 years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. The Becket Fund recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”