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Supreme Court OKs sectarian municipal prayers. Basically.

by Brad A. Greenberg

May 5, 2014 | 11:19 am

Well, this comes as a surprise:

Stopping just short of abandoning a historic barrier to religion in government activity, a deeply divided Supreme Court ruled on Monday that local governments may open their meetings with prayers that are explicitly religious and may turn out to be largely confined to expressing the beliefs of one faith.

Narrowly defining what is not allowed in such prayers, the Court said they may not be used to praise the virtues of one faith and may not cast other faiths or other believers in a sharply negative light.  Courts have no role in judging whether individual prayers satisfy that test, but can only examine a “pattern of prayer” to see whether it crossed the forbidden constitutional line and became a form of “coercion.”

More analysis from Lyle Denniston of SCOTUSblog here.

The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway. But similiar disputes have erupted around the country for years.

The only substantial restriction on prayers before government meetings has been that they are non-sectarian—i.e., they don't specifically mention a religion but rather speak broadly and generically. Even that limitation has been hard to meet. Rarely are these prayers "generic and universal," as Delaware's Sussex County claimed of the Lord's Prayer. Often, they refer specifically to Jesus, sometimes at length.

It's not clear whether some cities and counties intentionally have ignored the constitutional bar on sectarian prayer. As I reported almost 10 years ago, many Inland Empire cities simply didn't bother giving guidelines to those they invited to deliver the invocation.

Still, the shadow of a restriction was real. And though the Supreme Court's ruling today does not remove that barrier, it appears to wholly defang it. If municipal governments could not adhere to constitutional limitations on sectarian prayer before Town of Greece v. Galloway, why would they be able to once the possibility of meaningful judicial review has been vitiated?

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