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.
Petitioner Nebraska state officials sought review of the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which declared that the Nebraska Legislature's practice of employing a chaplain to open each legislative session with a prayer violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Respondent, a member of the legislature and Nebraska taxpayer, brought the action under 42 U.S.C.S. § 1983. The district court held only that the payment of the chaplain with public funds was unconstitutional, and did not enjoin the practice of opening each session with a prayer. The appellate court held the entire practice unconstitutional.
Did the Nebraska Legislature's chaplaincy practice violate the Establishment Clause?
The Court 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 reviewed the long history of opening legislative sessions with prayers. It held that the founding fathers certainly did not view the practice as violating the Establishment Clause because in the same week as they 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 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. The fact the current chaplain had been reappointed to the position for 16 years did not violate the Establishment Clause.