Earlier this month, in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a closely divided (5-4) Supreme Court upheld a practice in Greece, New York (located upstate) of starting town board meetings with a short prayer. Under the practice (which goes back around fifteen years) the Town has invited local clergy to offer an opening prayer after the presentation of the Pledge of Allegiance. Prayer givers deliver their words over the Board’s public address system, and many clergy have asked members of the audience to bow their heads, stand, or join in the prayer recitation. Christian clergy have given nearly all the prayers since 1999, and have been invited to do so by the Town, which often calls them “chaplain[s] of the month.”
In upholding the Town’s actions, the Court rejected both equality-based and liberty-based arguments that had been raised by the plaintiff challengers. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had invalidated the Town’s policy largely on the basis of equality concerns—because the prayers, in context, had to be understood as a public endorsement of Christianity, which violated the First Amendment’s ban on laws respecting an establishment of religion. As we made clear in an earlier column, we agreed with this reasoning, but we also felt that the plaintiffs had good arguments that the prayers at board meetings implicated liberty concerns and were coercive, insofar as nonbelievers or persons of non-Christian faiths might feel compelled to participate (or feign participation) in a town’s prayers, lest these minorities risk being viewed by the audience and, importantly, by the town board members themselves, as “outsiders” whose needs and interests might get less respect from local government on that account. For us, the coercion argument was much stronger here than it was in Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 case in which prayers offered at sessions of the Nebraska state legislature that were upheld against an Establishment Clause challenge. Importantly, because persons who attend local government sessions are likely to be participants rather than just spectators, the pressure to conform and participate is significantly higher here than in the state or national legislative arenas. Because of these differences, the decision in Marsh tells us very little about the coercive nature of government-sponsored prayer at city council/town board meetings. In the setting of a city council, citizens who wish to address the council are coerced when they are asked to stand or otherwise affirm the prayer that is being offered in their name. A failure to comply would risk alienating the very political decisionmakers whom they hope to influence.
In the paragraphs below, we offer our reaction to the reasoning employed by the Court in resolving these equality- and liberty-based arguments. Given space constraints, we necessarily focus only on the principal opinion in the case, but we recognize that other Justices expressed significant observations and analyses that we hope at some future point to explore.
Should the Town Practice Have Been Viewed as Discriminatory?
Justice Kennedy’s opinion—which announced the judgment of the Court and which was joined in full by the Chief Justice and Justice Alito and in part by Justices Scalia and Thomas—was to us quite surprising and disappointing. As we read and reread it, we feel it does not adequately address and respect the core constitutional values of religious liberty and equality, and often characterizes factual matters in strained ways. The analysis ignores critical legal distinctions or assigns substantive meaning to facts that should not matter. And perhaps most problematically, Justice Kennedy’s apparent understandings of social reality do not accord with our sense of human behavior, cultural meaning, and proper institutional functioning. In that respect, our disagreement is not just with Justice Kennedy’s interpretation of constitutional law in this case; we see a different real world than the one he describes and to which he applies constitutional principles.
Justice Kennedy begins by characterizing the Town’s prayer practice as nondiscriminatory, which explains his conclusion that the policy does not violate constitutional principles of religious equality. But as the Second Circuit found, the Town’s policy is glaringly discriminatory. The Town reaches out and calls congregations listed in local directories, and invites them to provide someone to offer a prayer at meetings. True, the Town asserts that it would permit individuals not affiliated with these congregations to offer prayers at meetings if such individuals asked permission to do so, but the Town acknowledges that it takes no affirmative steps to notify anyone in the community that such requests would be granted. Reaching out to some religious adherents in particular, and ignoring others who may not be affiliated with established congregations, hardly seems neutral.
Nor is the equality problem limited to unaffiliated religious persons; other Town residents may be affiliated, but with congregations located outside yet nearby Greece. Justice Kennedy observes that the Constitution does not require a town “to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers,” but it is common in modern America (especially outside big urban areas) for religious minorities in one town to worship in a congregation in a neighboring community. To formalistically ignore such persons is to deny them the same respect afforded to the members of established local congregations; the Town is simply not treating all of its denizens equally in this regard.
Justice Kennedy’s focus on the latitude the government-invited clergy should enjoy to say what they want without constraint also seems to us to completely miss the unequal respect issue, and also the liberty of conscience problem. He observes that once the government “invites prayer into the public sphere . . . it must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates.” But in the Town of Greece, prayer givers generally have not been expressing purely personal prayers. Instead, they have claimed to be leading a prayer made by the audience and the community. When government invites a prayer giver to speak on behalf of others, more than one individual’s conscience is at stake, and the consciences of all of the people in whose name the prayer is offered must be given equal respect.
It is far from respectful to say, as Justice Kennedy does—in response to concerns by audience members that they are being asked to stand and bow their heads and join in prayers—that the clergy in question are used to “directing their congregations in this way.” The key point is that the audience at a town board meeting is not a congregation—a group of self-selected worshippers who decided to attend the prayer giver’s church because they adhere to his beliefs and practices. Instead, audience members are a diverse group of citizens attending the board meeting on government business to address their representatives. They deserve to be treated as citizens, not congregants. Clergy who cannot distinguish between parishioners in the pews and the audience at a government meeting need to be reminded of this difference. The decision to attend a board meeting is not a decision to attend a church.
Justice Kennedy’s Treatment of the Coercive Aspects of Town Prayers
Perhaps even more unconvincing and undeveloped is Justice Kennedy’s response to the plaintiffs’ contention that the prayer practice adopted by the Town of Greece is inherently coercive in nature because attendees will feel pressure to conform and participate in this religious exercise. Here, he argues that a town’s practice must be understood in terms of the historical tradition of having legislative prayers, a tradition recognized and upheld in Marsh. But, as even Justice Kennedy curiously concedes, there is almost no evidence in the record establishing a long tradition of state-sponsored prayer at local government meetings. And this lack of tradition makes sense because, as noted above, Marsh is distinguishable insofar as citizens have no right, opportunity, or expectation to participate in state legislative or congressional sessions or to petition their representatives from the visitors’ gallery the way they do at the local government level. Since passive spectators at state legislative and congressional sessions are not petitioning government, they could hardly complain that they feel compelled to join in state sponsored prayer out of concern that their petitions would be denied. Active participants at local government meetings, to the contrary, are attempting to influence their representatives and will be subject to pressure to conform to avoid alienating the very decisionmakers they are addressing.
Justice Kennedy offers precious little by way of substantial response to this crucial distinction. And what he does offer is so unrealistic, it is hard to accept that he truly believes these arguments himself. He begins this part of his opinion with the unlikely assertion that “the principal audience for the [Town Board] invocations is not, indeed, the public but lawmakers themselves.” How can that be his interpretation of the facts? The individual clergy member offering the prayer generally faces the public audience with his or her back to the lawmakers. The clergy member asks the members of the public to stand, bow their heads, and join in prayer. The public—obviously understanding the prayer as being directed at them—stands and responds to the prayer giver’s requests. The prayer giver often asserts that the prayer is being made on behalf of the audience and the community. Yet in Justice Kennedy’s understanding, these prayers are primarily directed to the lawmakers and not to the public.
What’s more, Justice Kennedy believes that there is a sharp distinction between the town board members asking the audience to stand and pray, and the invited clergy member who is offering the prayer telling the audience to do so. To us, this distinction has no significant relevance to the key question, namely, whether audience members reasonably feel pressure to join in state-sponsored prayers lest they offend or alienate the town board decisionmakers they will be petitioning a short time later. If a judge, employer or teacher were to invite clergy to offer a prayer in court, on the job, or at school, respectively, and then invited all persons in attendance to pray, the coercive nature of the circumstance would not be significantly mitigated by the fact that the prayer directive came from the invited clergy rather than the judge, employer or teacher.
Justice Kennedy also suggests that the fact that coercion may be intrinsic to these contexts is constitutionally insignificant as long as board members do not explicitly assert that they will take a person’s refusal to pray into account in deciding matters before them, and so long as the citizens have no direct proof that board members have discriminated against residents who decline to pray. But basic constitutional law principles recognize that power is subject to abuse, including (perhaps especially) at the hands of petty functionaries. We structure many aspects of our system prophylactically to minimize the opportunities for abuse, particularly First Amendment abuse. Unfortunately, we simply cannot share Justice Kennedy’s almost naïve sense that “should nonbelievers choose to exit the room during a prayer they find distasteful, their absence will not stand out as disrespectful or even noteworthy.” For better or worse, in the real world, culture wars, friction between members of different faiths, and acrimony and retribution (whether conscious and unconscious) between religious and non-religious individuals and groups is very real. There is a reason Establishment Clause claims are sometimes brought by John or Jane Doe litigants.
Contested Views Regarding the Religious Nature of Prayer and the Relative Coercion in Different Settings
Most surprising and problematic of all is Justice Kennedy’s seeming understanding of the nature of prayer and its meaning to the religious individual. To Justice Kennedy, public prayer at a town board meeting does many things and serves many functions, most of which are largely ceremonial in nature. He never suggests or even really acknowledges that prayer might be something else—that it is a personal, meaningful expression of the individual to G-d. But for many Americans that is precisely what prayer is, and its expression in a public meeting does not alter its fundamental nature. Indeed, the reason so many of the prayers offered before town board meetings in Greece are explicitly sectarian is that the person offering the prayer understands prayer as a meaningful communication to G-d and an expression of heartfelt faith.
Justice Kennedy’s dismissal of the impact of these prayers on members of minority faiths or those who are not religious can be reasonably understood only if one accepts a watered-down definition and understanding of prayer. It is only in this sense that he can argue that if religious minorities and nonreligious citizens remain in the meeting room and stand along with everyone else for the prayer, no serious harm is done. He believes that their conduct would not “be interpreted as an agreement with the words or ideas expressed.” But this argument presupposes that these town board prayers do not serve the function of true prayer, and that the people standing and bowing their heads are not engaging in a meaningful religious act. If the majority of individuals participate in these collective prayers as authentic expressions of prayer, of course a nonreligious individual or member of a religious minority engaging in the exact same behavior would necessarily be perceived as engaging in a similarly authentic religious exercise. Why would anyone interpret that individual’s conduct differently?
In the past, Justice Kennedy has been more attuned to the real-world position in which non-majority persons find themselves when dealing with religion in the public sphere. Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion in Lee v. Weisman, where the Court struck down state-sponsored prayers at public middle and high school graduations. His sensitivity to context and to the coercive burden on students in that case stands in stark contrast to the ungrounded analysis that permeates his opinion in Town of Greece. Justice Kennedy asserts that the offering of state-sponsored prayer at a middle school or high school graduation is more coercive than the offering of prayers at a town board meeting. But in doing so, once again, his analysis misses the crux of the coercion argument in Town of Greece. Because they have completed their studies, graduating seniors at public school graduations no longer risk the exercise of discretionary authority by teachers and principals who might be offended if students refused to stand during a benediction. They are no longer subject to the control of school authorities. Residents seeking to influence town board members on one or more matters involving their personal needs and interests experience far greater coercion because they are subject to the discretionary decisions of the board that has orchestrated the offering of a prayer in which they publicly refuse to participate.
Nor was the challengers’ claims in Lee stronger than those raised in Town of Greece simply because minors were involved in the former case. While it may be true that adults are more capable of standing their ground than are children, pressure is pressure whether or not someone gives in to it. For that reason, the fact that many adults might simply refuse to participate in town prayers and risk the alienation of the board—rather than sacrifice their religious principles—does not make their First Amendment claims any the weaker; coercion is impermissible because it violates the Constitution for the state to force someone to choose between adherence to one’s religious beliefs or the risk of harm or loss, without regard to how the victim responds to the illicit pressure.
It seems that the world—or at least Justice Kennedy’s view of it—has changed since Lee was decided.