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Law School Case Brief

Town of Greece v. Galloway - 572 U.S. 565, 134 S. Ct. 1811 (2014)

Rule:

It is not necessary to define the precise boundary of the Establishment Clause where history shows that the specific practice is permitted. Any test the U.S. Supreme Court adopts must acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the Framers and has withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change. The line the Court must draw between the permissible and the impermissible is one which accords with history and faithfully reflects the understanding of the Founding Fathers. A test that would sweep away what has so long been settled would create new controversy and begin anew the very divisions along religious lines that the Establishment Clause seeks to prevent. The Court’s inquiry, then, must be to determine whether a legislative prayer practice fits within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures.

Facts:

Since 1999, the monthly town board meetings in Greece, New York, were opened with a roll call, a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer given by clergy selected from the congregations listed in a local directory. While the prayer program was open to all creeds, nearly all of the local congregations were Christian; thus, nearly all of the participating prayer givers were too. Respondents Susan Galloway and others, citizens who attended meetings to speak on local issues, filed suit in federal district court against petitioner Town of Greece ("Town"), alleging that the Town violated the First Amendments Establishment Clause by preferring Christians over other prayer givers and by sponsoring sectarian prayers. They sought to limit the town to "inclusive and ecumenical" prayers that referred only to a "generic God." The district court upheld the prayer practice on summary judgment, finding no impermissible preference for Christianity. The court concluded that the Christian identity of most of the prayer givers reflected the predominantly Christian character of the Town's congregations, not an official policy or practice of discriminating against minority faiths. Moreover, the district court found that the First Amendment did not require the Town to invite clergy from congregations beyond its borders to achieve religious diversity. It also rejected the theory that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, holding that some aspects of the prayer program, viewed in their totality by a reasonable observer, conveyed the message that the Town was endorsing Christianity. The Town was granted a writ of certiorari.

Issue:

By reciting a Christian prayer in its monthly town board meetings, did the Town violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause?

Answer:

No.

Conclusion:

The Supreme Court of the United States held that the Town's prayer practice was not unconstitutional. According to the Court, the First Amendment did not require legislative prayer to be nonsectarian. The Court averred that prayers that reflected beliefs specific to only some creeds were permissible so long as the practice over time was not exploited to proselytize or to disparage any other faith or belief. Disparaging remarks in two of the Town's prayers did not establish a constitutional violation, as the Town's practice on the whole reflected and embraced the tradition of legislative prayers. Nor did the fact that a predominantly Christian set of ministers had been invited to lead the prayers violate the Establishment Clause, as the Town was not required to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in order to achieve religious balancing.

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