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Opening in Prayer

2/17/16

Judge Gerald A. Williams
North Valley Justice of the Peace

Various municipal governments are struggling with an issue many thought was settled: If they open with a prayer, do they have to give equal time to every conceivable group? The short legal answer is probably not. 

But wait, doesn’t the First Amendment expressly provide for “the separation of church and state?” No. If you seek those words in the text of the U.S. Constitution, you will not find them. The part of the First Amendment that relates to this discussion is concerned with the government establishing a religion. There are many appellate cases on this topic; but two U.S. Supreme Court cases are especially important.

In March v. Chambers, the U.S. Supreme Court, in 1983, held that the Nebraska legislature could open in prayer in large part because the Congress that wrote the First Amendment did so. That was true even though Nebraska had only used a Presbyterian minister for the previous 16 years and even though he was actually paid with state funds.    

In Town of Greece v. Galloway, which was decided less than two years ago, the Court held that a town meeting could open with a prayer and that doing so did not violate the First Amendment even though the prayers had primarily been Christian. In that case, the justices in the majority focused on whether coercion was present (such as whether a municipal government’s governing body ordered the public to join in prayer or criticized people who did not want to pray).

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion noted, “Respondents argue, in effect, that legislative prayer may be addressed only to a generic God. The law and the Court could not draw this line for each specific prayer or seek to require ministers to set aside their nuanced and deeply personal beliefs for vague and artificial ones.”

One of the groups seeking to give an invocation at city council meetings over the last few weeks has named themselves after Satan; however, according to press reports, they don’t actually claim to worship Satan. So are they a religion? Maybe not. 

Nearly every major religion contains a command that people should do good things to others. In contrast, a group that actually followed Satan would presumably open a local government meeting by asking for an increase in deceit (and possibly violence). No city council is required to facilitate such a belief system.     

It’s okay if you think that legislative bodies should not open in prayer and sound policy arguments can be made against doing so. However, it is equally true that if the U.S. Senate, a city council, or a local school board wants to open with a prayer, then it is arguably not unconstitutional for them to do so. It is much more of a policy decision than a legal decision.

Judge Williams is the justice of the peace for the North Valley Justice Court. His column appears monthly in The Foothills Focus.