The Supreme Court's decision Monday to allow Christian prayers at city council and other public meetings divided justices not only ideologically, but along religious lines as well.
The five justices in majority are Catholics, and they agreed that an opening prayer at a public government meeting, delivered by a Christian pastor, brings the town together.
"By inviting ministers to serve as chaplain for the month, ...the town is acknowledging the central place that religion and religious institutions hold in the lives of those present," said Justice Anthony Kennedy. If some citizens hear prayers that "make them feel excluded and disrespected," they should ignore them, he said. "Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable."
Three of the four dissenters are Jewish: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan. The fourth, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, was raised as a Catholic, but she is said to be not a regular church goer.
Justice Elena Kagan faulted the majority for approving an official policy of "religious favoritism." In her dissent, she said the majority might view the matter differently had a "mostly Muslim town" opened its session with Muslim prayers or if a Jewish community invited a rabbi every month.
The case arose after the town of Greece, N.Y., near Rochester, decided to invite clerics to its monthly meetings. From 1999 to 2007, all the ministers who delivered the opening prayers were Christians. And as the court noted, many of the prayers invoked Jesus Christ.
In a 1983 decision, the Supreme Court had upheld the Nebraska legislature's use of a paid chaplain to open its meetings. But it was not clear whether such prayers should be limited to "non-sectarian" invocations to a "Heavenly Father" or a generic "God," or could be explicitly Christian, mentioning Jesus Christ.
The Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based religious rights group, applauded the ruling as affirming "that Americans are free to pray. In America, we tolerate a diversity of opinions and beliefs. We don't silence people or try to separate what they say from what they believe," according to David Cortman, an attorney for the group.
The American Civil Liberties Union said it was disappointed with the decision.
"Official religious favoritism should be off-limits under the Constitution," said Daniel Mach, an ACLU attorney. "Town-sponsored sectarian prayer violates the basic rule requiring government to stay neutral on matters of faith."
One of the women who challenged the practice was Jewish and the second was an atheist. They said the Christian prayers made them feel uncomfortable.
After the ruling was announced, Bill Reilich, town supervisor of Greece, N.Y., said the case was about more than just his city of 96,000 people.
“It’s freedom of speech,” Reilich said at a news conference. “It’s beyond even religion. It’s reaffirming what our country was founded on. It’s much bigger than the town of Greece.”
Reilich said Greece, whose town board meets once a month, was doing what “every legislative body” he had ever served on does: open with a prayer. He said the prayer was not intended to isolate or convert anyone.
“If they feel uncomfortable with joining us in the prayer, they can have a moment of silent reflection while the prayer is offered,” Reilich said.
He said the prayer practice would continue and that anyone who wanted to come and offer a prayer could do so and would be accommodated, depending on the board’s schedule.
Staff writer Tina Susman in New York contributed to this story.