Members of local government bodies can continue to bow their heads before taking up public business.
The U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision affirmed that Christian-oriented prayers are allowed at the beginning of local council meetings as long as they do not denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts. The Obama administration backed the decision.
The court’s conservative majority said such prayers follow a long U.S. tradition. In 1983, the court also upheld an opening prayer in the Nebraska Legislature, saying prayer is part of the nation’s fabric and is not a violation of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the prayers should be seen as ceremonial and “part of a larger exercise in civic recognition … (whose) purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.”
The case involved the town of Greece, N.Y. A federal appeals court had ruled the town violated the Constitution by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year period with Christian-oriented prayers.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing the dissent, said that unlike open sessions of Congress and state legislatures, where prayers are directed to their members, town council meetings are directed to the public – and children may be present.
Considering today’s media and popular culture, it’s hard to believe Kagan is aghast that children might be exposed to a bland, nondenominational prayer.
The high court’s ruling is reasonable and recognizes that traditions do not have to be discarded completely when times change.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.