Town of Greece v. Galloway

Following is the case brief for Town of Greece v. Galloway, 134 U.S. 1811 (2014)

Case Summary of Town of Greece v. Galloway:

  • The Town of Greece, for over a decade, began its town hall meetings with a prayer.  The prayers, given by someone from a house of worship in the town, were virtually always Christian prayers.
  • Citizens of the Town sued, claiming that the practice violated the Establishment Clause.
  • The District Court dismissed the matter, but the Second Circuit reversed the dismissal.  It found that a reasonable observer would conclude that the prayer endorsed Christianity.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Second Circuit.  It held that there are some prayers at the beginning of a legislative session that have traditionally been permitted in the U.S. and the Town of Greece’s practice was similar to those traditions such that it does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Town of Greece v. Galloway Case Brief

Statement of the Facts:

For approximately 10 years, the monthly town board meeting in Greece, New York, began with a prayer given by clergy selected from local congregations.  Although the practice was said to be inclusive of all religions, virtually all of the prayer givers were Christian.  Accordingly, a group of Greece, New York, citizens filed sued, claiming that the opening-prayer practices violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by giving preference to Christian prayers.

Procedural History:

  • The District Court upheld the town board’s practice, dismissing the suit on summary judgment.
  • The Second Circuit, however, reversed, finding that the prayer practice endorsed Christianity from the perspective of a reasonable observer.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari.

Issue and Holding:

Does an opening prayer at the beginning of a town’s legislative session violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment if the prayers are predominantly Christian?  No.

Judgment:

The decision of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals is reversed.

Rule of Law or Legal Principle Applied:

The context and jurisprudence surrounding the First Amendment demonstrates that the Establishment Clause was never meant to prohibit legislative prayer, provided that it does not expressly coerce the public into religious observance.

Reasoning:

A legislative prayer at the beginning of a session to establish the solemnity and deliberative mood of the proceeding has been a part of the country’s tradition, and acknowledges religion’s role in society.  The Establishment Clause does not prohibit such prayer.

Moreover, the Court should not be in the position of being arbiters of religious speech, which would impermissibly involve government in religion.  Finally, the prayer is for the government officials, not the public, thereby removing any coercive aspect to the religious invocation.

Accordingly, the prayers in question do not violate the tradition of allowing some prayer in governmental proceedings and, thus, do not violate the First Amendment.

Concurring and Dissenting Opinions:

Concurring Opinion (Alito):

Responding to Justice Kagan’s dissent, the facts show that there are just not that many non-Christian places of worship in the Town of Greece.  In addition, the dissent’s suggested way to avoid the First Amendment problem is insufficient, as it is difficult to determine what would be a “generic” all-inclusive “prayer.”  Further, the dissent’s issue in the case really comes down to a statement that the town clerk did a poor job in gathering the list of potential guest chaplains available.  The dissent’s recommended changes are so small as to be rather insignificant.

Concurring Opinion (Thomas):

It is worth reiterating that the Establishment Clause is a federalism provision.  The Clause prohibits establishing a national religion.  But the States may do as they please with regard to religion.

Dissenting Opinion (Breyer):

In this “fact-sensitive” case, the Second Circuit was correct to note that the Town did not have a sufficiently inclusive “prayer-giver selection process.”  It could have done better to be more inclusive.  The Town is predominantly Christian, but not exclusively so.  It made no effort to inform the area’s non-Christian houses of worship.  The fact that virtually all of the prayers given were Christian is significant.  The Constitution does not forbid opening prayers, but it also does not forbid efforts to explain to prayer-givers the nature of the event and the audience.

Dissenting Opinion (Kagan):

The Constitution promises that however individuals worship, they will count as full and equal American citizens.  The Town of Greece’s prayer practice violates that norm of religious equality.  While a town hall need not become a religious-free zone, the Town of Greece should still lose this case because it did nothing to recognize religious diversity.

Significance:

Town of Greece v. Galloway is important because it treads the line between what is permissible religious prayer in official proceedings (as part of this country’s history and tradition) and what is exclusionary to citizens of religions different from Christianity.  It reveals, once again, the fact-sensitive inquiry that is the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence.

Student Resources:

Read the Full Court Opinion

Listen to the Oral Arguments

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