In a 5-4 decision, the United States Supreme Court held today that the town of Greece, N.Y. did not violate the First Amendment prohibition on establishment of religion by opening its meetings with a legislative invocation or prayer. The Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway decision is available online.

Plaintiffs challenging the town’s practice argued that legislative invocations contained sectarian language or themes, and argued that the invocations coerce non-adherents to remain in the room or even pretend participation in order to avoid offending the board members who sponsor the invocations and will vote on matters that citizens bring before the board.

The Court rejected the argument that governments may only allow nonsectarian invocations as that would require government to act as “supervisors and censors of religious speech” and be placed in the position of regulating content by determining what constitutes a nonsectarian invocation as opposed to a sectarian one.

As to the coercion argument, the Court found that legislative invocations in the town meeting context are not intended for the public, but for lawmakers “who may find that a moment of prayer or quiet reflection sets the mind to the higher purpose and thereby eases the task of governing.” But the Court cautioned that coercion could be possible if the town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out those who chose not to participate in the invocations, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s participation in the invocation.

The Court’s decision is important for every city that currently opens its meeting with a legislative invocation or may decide to do so in the future. Those cities need to consult with their city attorneys to ensure that the city’s adopted policy on legislative invocations is consistent with the Court’s ruling.

The League thanks Allison E. Burns with Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth for filing a neutral “friend-of-the-court” brief on behalf of the League, supporting neither party in the case.

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Originally posted at The League of CA Cities.