By Robert Barnes (external - login to view), Updated: Monday, May 5

A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that legislative bodies such as city councils can begin their meetings with prayer, even if it plainly favors the religion of the speaker.

The court ruled 5 to 4 that Christian prayers given before meetings of an upstate New York town council did not violate the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion.

“Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the court’s conservative majority.

The case involved the New York town of Greece, where the council regularly opened its meeting with a prayer delivered by someone in the community. The prayers were overwhelmingly Christian, and a lower court said that violated the Constitution.

The Supreme Court overturned that ruling. Kennedy said the analysis would be different if the town’s prayers were coercive. But he said there was no evidence that “town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity. No such thing occurred in the town of Greece.”

Joining Kennedy in the outcome were Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Thomas and Scalia differed from the rest on the issue of coercion. Thomas questioned whether the constitution’s Establishment Clause applies to state and local governments. Even if it does, he said, only “actual legal coercion” to participate in religious activities would count. Peer pressure, he said, would not be enough.

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent for the court’s liberals, saying the town council did nothing to be inclusive of other religious beliefs.

“When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another,” she wrote. “And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines. . . . The Town of Greece betrayed that promise.”

She was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

The case raised the question of how government can accommodate the nation’s religious traditions without endorsing beliefs not shared by all.

The court decided 30 years ago that legislatures may begin sessions with an invocation. But the new case asked whether there might need to be different rules for a local council meeting, where citizens often come to ask for favorable official action. The arguments also considered whether, by opening its session almost always with prayers from one faith, a government essentially identifies itself with that specific religion.
More at link: Supreme Court upholds legislative prayer at council meetings - The Washington Post (external - login to view)

Might could surprise some folk who've read my opinion on religion, but I agree with the majority in this case.