Aleteia logoAleteia logoAleteia
Tuesday 28 March |
Saint of the Day: Bl. Dedë Maçaj
Aleteia logo
separateurCreated with Sketch.

Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Public Prayer

Washington DC 002

Phil Roeder

John Burger - published on 05/07/14

Prayers before governmental legislative sessions are constitutional. Court refuses to impose any standards as to prayers' content.

Need an idea for Lenten almsgiving?

Help us spread faith on the internet. Would you consider donating just $10, so we can continue creating free, uplifting content?

Make a Lenten donation here

Yesterday’s Supreme Court decision on prayer in public settings upheld the constitutional prohibition of making laws that respect an establishment of religion, says an attorney with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

“We think it’s a landmark case that is protecting our national commitment to a robustly religious pluralism in public life,” said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel for the non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. “We think also that in its opinion, the Supreme Court affirmed that religion is not some sort of vaguely shameful thing that has to be cut out of public life.”

The Acton Institute, a Catholic think tank that promotes “a free and virtuous society characterized by individual liberty and sustained by religious principles,” issued a statement to Aleteia saying, “The Court’s decision upholds Americans’ fundamental right to freely practice their faith, adhering to our nation’s Constitution. Prayer and the freedom of religion have always been central to American life. This ruling continues that ideal, which is not simply a tradition, but a primary and legitimate right bestowed not by government, but by God.”

The ruling, said Blomberg, actually enforces the Establishment Clause because it prohibits any government agencies from getting involved in crafting generic prayers to a generic god that, it would be hoped, everyone could be comfortable with. “What the plaintiffs were asking for was for a government-sanctioned, government-approved, government-edited prayer to a government god that no one believes in,” Blomberg said.

The Becket Fund filed a friend-of-the-court brief in Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the Supreme Court May 5 upheld the constitutionality of the practice of legislative prayer.

The case grew out of two women’s concern that they and others attending the monthly town board meetings in the upstate New York town felt excluded because most of the prayers beginning the public meetings were led by Christian ministers. Susan Galloway, a Jew, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, brought their concerns to town officials but felt the officials did not take their concerns seriously. They had Americans United for the Separation of Church and State write letters to the town, but there was still no change in policy. With Americans United’s help, the two women sued in 2008. Eventually, a federal appeals court sided with them, forbidding the town from starting council meetings with a prayer.

Galloway, in an interview May 6, said that there used to be just a moment of silence rather than a public prayer before town board meetings. “I have no problem with that because nobody is put on the spot,” she said. “There’s no pressure to conform or pressure that you don’t fit in.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing the majority opinion in the 5-4 decision, said that prayers in legislative settings were “meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the nation’s heritage.” He said such prayer was for the members of the legislative body, not the public.

But Galloway said that the podium would always face the audience when a local minister got up to pray at the meetings. “The person was kind of preaching to the citizenry,” she said. “After they finished the prayer, they would turn the podium around to face the government for the public forum part of it.”

A Catholic Priest’s Prayer

Fr. Peter Enyan-Boadu, pastor of St. John the Evangelist, Greece, has prayed at the town board meeting in the past. There didn’t seem to be any kind of preaching or proselytizing in the prayer he offered at a special town board meeting that was held the day of the Supreme Court ruling.

“My prayer was for the town board meeting,” he said in an interview May 6. “I asked for God’s blessing on the meeting, for intelligence of the people there, for them to do what is good for the town of Greece.”

A native of Ghana, Fr. Enyan-Boadu has served in the Diocese of Rochester for 22 years. He called the Supreme Court ruling “an excellent decision…I hope it expands into our public schools as well. … Our society needs God, needs moral guidance. We need a basic understanding that there’s a higher being than us and we have a reliance on God. We shouldn’t forget that America was founded on Christian principles.”

In a statement, the Becket Fund pointed out that not only Christians, but also Jews, Bahá’ís, and even Wiccans have led invocations before the town board meetings.

Still, Galloway would rather there be no prayers at all. “Government should avoid things that will make people not want to attend the meetings,” she said. “I’d rather not have it at all rather than having a rabbi offer a prayer. … I know what pressure you can feel when Christians are offering prayer, so I wouldn’t want others to be pressured like that. … Democracy depends on people participating.”

She said that town officials told her that she could leave the meeting during the prayer if it made her feel uncomfortable. But she said the meetings tended to be short and that she feared she would end up missing the public forum and lose her chance to speak on issues that concerned her.

The Becket Fund statement noted that the American 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,” the statement said.

“As a people we will always have disagreements about religion,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund. “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.”

John Burgeris a freelance writer covering mostly topics in Catholicism. He has worked as a reporter and editor at the National Catholic Register and Catholic New York, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of New York, and his art
icles have appeared in Human Life Review, Legatus and Family Foundations, as well as online at Fathers for Good and Catholic World Report.

PrayerReligious Freedom
Support Aleteia!

Enjoying your time on Aleteia?

Articles like these are sponsored free for every Catholic through the support of generous readers just like you.

Thanks to their partnership in our mission, we reach more than 20 million unique users per month!

Help us continue to bring the Gospel to people everywhere through uplifting and transformative Catholic news, stories, spirituality, and more.

Support Aleteia with a gift today!

Daily prayer
And today we celebrate...

Entrust your prayer intentions to our network of monasteries

Top 10
See More
Get Aleteia delivered to your inbox. Subscribe here.