In a split decision, the majority upheld the tradition of the US since its founding.

This needs closer scrutiny.

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

The court ruled 5 to 4 that Christian prayers said before meetings of an Upstate New York town council did not violate the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion; the justices cited history and tradition.

“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.

This was an important test, yet again (a previous one being Hosanna-Tabor) of the true provision for the free exercise of religious liberty in America by the Founders.

The ruling reflected a Supreme Court that has become more lenient on how government may accommodate religion in civic life without crossing the line into an endorsement of a particular faith. All nine justices endorsed the concept of legislative prayer, with the four dissenters agreeing that the public forum “need not become a religion-free zone,” in the words of Justice Elena Kagan.

However, since everything is so political and partisan these days, there’s a clause to follow.

But there was sharp disagreement after that, and the majority ruling could encourage public bodies to give more leeway to religious expression in their ceremonial prayers and less deference to the objections of religious minorities.

The court’s five conservatives said legislative prayers need not be stripped of references to a specific religion — the prayers at issue often invoked Jesus Christ and the resurrection — and said those given the opportunity to pray before legislative meetings should be “unfettered” by what government officials find appropriate.

“Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a particular prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation,” Kennedy wrote.

Once again, as is usually at issue in these court cases, the complaint was that the prayers tended to be Christian. And in this case, it was alleged that the opening prayer might somehow coerce everyone in the courtroom to hold a certain belief, or prejudice or intimidate those involved in grievances up for consideration before the governing body.

Kennedy began by referring to history: The same founders who wrote the First Amendment — with its prohibition on the establishment of a government religion but also protections for religious liberty — provided money for congressional chaplains, he said.

“Legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable Court’ at the opening of this Court’s sessions,” he wrote.

And he said there was no evidence that Greece town council members “allocated benefits and burdens based on participation in the prayer.”

The court’s majority split on how to judge whether prayers amount to coercion of nonbelievers.

“The analysis would be different if 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,” Kennedy wrote in a part of the opinion joined only by Roberts and Alito.

Still, the religious divide was stressed in the case and the reporting of it.

“The rule announced by the Court today authorizes elected officials or clergy to give sectarian prayers in the name of Jesus, Hashem, Allah or any other deity before Congress, state legislatures, or local town boards,” the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement. “The religiously divisive implications of this new rule are troubling in any of these contexts, however it is particularly disturbing at the local level.”

But David Cortman, senior counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, praised the ruling.

“Opening public meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution themselves practiced,” he said. “Speech censors should have no power to silence volunteers who pray for their communities just as the Founders did.”

It’s most interesting to recall that the Supreme Court unanimously agreed in Hosanna-Tabor that the State has no right to interfere in long established and protected matters of religious freedom. But building to the high court’s decision on the HHS mandate severely restricting that right, a decision expected by June, this case is only adding to the drama building around that decision.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....