The Nebraska Legislature's practice of opening each legislative day with a prayer by a chaplain paid by the State does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an establishment of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country. We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a supreme being.
The Nebraska Legislature began each of its sessions with a prayer by a chaplain paid by the State with the legislature's approval. Ernest Chambers, a member of the Nebraska Legislature, brought an action in Federal District Court, claiming that the legislature's chaplaincy practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and sought injunctive relief. The District Court held that the Establishment Clause was not breached by the prayer but was violated by paying the chaplain from public funds, and accordingly enjoined the use of such funds to pay the chaplain. The Court of Appeals held that the whole chaplaincy practice violated the Establishment Clause, and accordingly prohibited the State from engaging in any aspect of the practice. Thereafter, the Nebraska state officials sought a review of the judgment of the appellate court.
Did the chaplaincy practice of the Nebraska Legislature violate the Establishment Clause?
Upon a writ of certiorari, the Supreme Court of the United States reversed the judgment of the appellate court enjoining the legislature from using public funds to pay a chaplain to open legislative sessions with a prayer. The Court held that the founding fathers did not view the chaplaincy practice as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because history suggested that in the same week as the founding fathers approved a draft of the First Amendment for submission to the states, they also voted to appoint and to pay a chaplain for each house. The Court noted that the practice had become part of the fabric of society, and the fears that it would lead to the establishment of a national religion were unfounded. The Court held that the remuneration of the chaplain from public funds was a longstanding practice, initiated by Congress, which did not violate the Establishment Clause. According to the Court, the fact the current chaplain had been reappointed to the position for 16 years did not violate the Establishment Clause.