Prayer could become an official part of Turlock City Council meetings once again, following a split decision of the Supreme Court on Monday.
A 5-4 majority ruled that the town council of Greece, New York, had not violated the U.S. Constitution by opening its meetings with Christian prayers.
“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,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote.
The move eliminates any need for pre-meeting prayers to refer to a generic “God” without referencing particular religions.
Kennedy deemed the Christian prayers before the Greece town council meetings to not be coercive in nature. He also said there was no indication that those in attendance were directed to pray, nor was retribution handed out to those who did not participate.
The decision placed some limits on pre-meeting prayers, noting they should not "denigrate non-believers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion," and that they should be intended to solemnize occasions.
Justice Elena Kagan penned the dissent, arguing that the town was not inclusive of others’ beliefs. Every meeting from 1999 to 2007 began with a Christian prayer, and few other religions have been represented since, despite lawsuits.
“When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another,” she wrote. “And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines. . . . The Town of Greece betrayed that promise.”
The decision was endorsed by the Alliance Defending Freedom, a nonprofit which represented the town in court.
“In America, we tolerate a diversity of opinions and beliefs; we don’t silence people or try to separate what they say from what they believe,” ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman said. “Opening public meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution themselves practiced. Speech censors should have no power to silence volunteers who pray for their communities just as the Founders did.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a friend of the court brief in the case, said the decision makes non-Christian people feel like outsiders.
"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. Town-sponsored sectarian prayer violates the basic rule requiring the government to stay neutral on matters of faith."
Turlock City Council has History of Prayer, Legal Battles
The Turlock City Council has traditionally opened its meetings with a prayer offered by a local member of the clergy. However, since September 2009, that prayer has been conducted before the council meeting officially commences.
The change followed the receipt of a legal letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation. In that letter, Rebecca Kratz, FFRF staff attorney, argued that the practice both violated the U.S. Constitution and “alienates any non-Christians and non-believers” by turning them into “political outsiders of their own community and government.”
More than 150 people attended a meeting of September 2009 Turlock City Council meeting to discuss the future of institutionalized prayer. The majority of those in attendance argued for a moment of silence to replace religious invocations.
But the council unanimously decided to continue opening meetings with invocations from speakers of various faiths. Following the decision, the council has hosted clergy from the Bahá'í, Hindu, and Jewish faiths, though most prayers are Christian in nature; previously, nearly all prayers were Christian.
The council’s decision also moved prayers to before the official start of council meetings in hopes of avoiding legal action. FFRF staff said at the time that the move had little legal effect, as the Turlock City Council had adopted a resolution in support of prayer even if it occurred before the start of meetings, but did not pursue legal action.
The debate also led to the council decision which placed the words “In God We Trust” on the walls of the Turlock City Council chambers. The phrase is an official motto of the United States; it has been found by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to be patriotic and not religious in nature.
Future of Turlock Council Prayer Uncertain
Turlock City Manager Roy Wasden said he was unaware the Supreme Court was discussing council prayer until the court’s decision made the news on Monday. However, he said the decision would likely encourage the Turlock City Council to continue opening its meetings with prayer.
“We’ve had that similar history,” Wasden said. “I’d think the council would intend to continue.”
Wasden confirmed that no council action to alter its prayer policy has been discussed or agendized at this time.
Turlock City Councilmember Bill DeHart endorsed the Supreme Court’s decision, saying he believes it “makes sense.” He called the decision an “affirmation” of the value of prayer before public meetings.
“We have a significant body of practice, a couple of centuries worth of history, that were established for some reason,” DeHart said. “Probably a very good reason.”
DeHart said he was still trying to get his hands around the decision, and was uncertain what effect it might have on the Turlock City Council’s tradition of prayer.
“Should it be part of the official meeting… I don’t know,” DeHart said. “I would be less concerned about that than I would be about it not being permitted, period.”