Before each public meeting of the Town Council, the Town of Greece, New York, has a tradition of inviting volunteers to pray. This is a common practice that predates the founding of the United States and the Supreme Court has found to be part of the “fabric of society” in America.
But in 2008, two residents of the town filed a lawsuit alleging that the prayers violated the First Amendment—even though the town allowed volunteers to pray consistent with the practice and faith of the individual prayer giver.
After more than six years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Greece’s practice of permitting uncensored prayer to open Town Council meetings did not violate the First Amendment. The Court affirmed the right of all Americans to pray freely.
What is the Town of Greece?
The Town of Greece in Western New York is just a few miles north of Rochester. It was established in March 1822, and its name was born from support for the country of Greece during its fight for independence from Turkey.
In 1999, town supervisor John Auberger established the practice of allowing volunteers to pray before each public meeting of the town council. The town had a directory of religious centers, and it began contacting ministers and asking for volunteers to pray before the meetings.
Even though Greece never barred ministers of any religion from praying at the meetings, most of the religious centers in the town were Christian churches. As a result, most who volunteered to pray before the meetings were Christians.
Two residents of Greece, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, took issue with the nature and content of the prayers.
In February 2008, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) filed a lawsuit against the Town of Greece on behalf of Galloway and Stephens. The lawsuit alleged that the town was violating the First Amendment by permitting too many Christian prayers.
Meanwhile, the Town of Greece never discriminated against any religion when selecting who to invite. Rather, the Town contacted every religious assembly listed in the town directory, the majority of which happen to be Christian.
At one meeting in 2008, Galloway said she felt excluded by the prayers because of the Christian content.
The town responded to Galloway’s concerns by inviting Galloway and Stephens to lead a prayer to open a future meeting. They declined. The notoriety of the challenge to prayer prompted a Jewish layman and the chairman of a local Baháʼí temple to pray before meetings. A Wiccan priestess also requested to deliver a prayer, and the town happily accepted.
Despite these facts, Galloway and Stephens still pursued litigation against the Town of Greece. While the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York initially dismissed the lawsuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit reversed that decision.
The 2nd Circuit ruled Greece “virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint” by having so many Christian prayers, which was inevitable when selecting ministers from religious centers inside the town limits. To rectify this problem, the court said Greece needed to either abandon the prayer practice or invite clergy from religious centers outside the town to find a sufficient number of non-Christians willing to pray at the meetings.
ADF attorneys appealed this extremely unusual ruling, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
What did the Supreme Court decide in Town of Greece v. Galloway?
In a 5-4 decision, the Court reversed the 2nd Circuit ruling and dismissed AU’s lawsuit against the Town of Greece. It ruled that the town’s practice of allowing volunteers to pray however dictated by their own faith did not discriminate against any religion, and it rejected the allegation that allowing a prayer giver to include “overtly Christian references” in prayer, such as the mention of Christ, violates the First Amendment.
What has the Supreme Court said about public prayer?
The Court’s ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway affirmed that all people in the United State can pray freely consistent with their own faith and that legislative bodies at all levels of government have the freedom to seek Divine guidance and blessing on their deliberations.
- February 2008: AU filed a lawsuit against the Town of Greece on behalf of two residents alleging that its practice of inviting citizens to volunteer uncensored prayers before meetings was unconstitutional.
- August 2010: The U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York ruled that the Town of Greece had not violated the Constitution and dismissed AU’s lawsuit.
- May 2012: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit reversed the district court’s decision to dismiss the suit. While the 2nd Circuit found that some prayers may be constitutional, it ruled that the Town of Greece needed to abandon its prayer practice or take unprecedented steps to make sure non-Christians did not “feel like outsiders.”
- December 2012: ADF attorneys petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
- May 2014: The Supreme Court reversed the 2nd Circuit ruling in a 5-4 decision. The Court ruled that the Town of Greece was free to allow uncensored prayers and that so doing did not violate the First Amendment.
The bottom line
Local governments are free to allow uncensored prayer at public meetings.