WASHINGTON — — A divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld Monday the right of local governments to offer sectarian prayers at public meetings, a decision that clears the way for the Carroll County board of commissioners to restore their Christian observances.
In a 5-4 decision, the high court held that the town of Greece in upstate New York did not violate the Constitution's ban on government endorsement of religion when the town board offered prayers before its monthly meetings — even though the prayers often invoked the name of Jesus and focused on other inherently Christian themes.
The decision had an immediate effect on Carroll County, where the board of commissioners has been under a federal court order since March to abstain from prayers that refer to deities of specific faiths. Citing the Supreme Court decision, U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. lifted that order hours after the high court ruling.
"This is a victory for free speech," said Carroll County Commissioner Richard Rothschild, who opposed changing the prayers. "The decision certainly seems to vindicate our position."
But the ruling, which split the Supreme Court along ideological lines, won't immediately end the controversy in Carroll County. The plaintiffs in the local case vowed to continue to press the issue.
They argue that what happened in Greece is not analogous, in part because Carroll commissioners themselves offer the prayer rather than calling on outside clergy.
"Unlike in the town of Greece, where even an atheist could give an invocation, in this case you have a very exclusive policy," said Monica Miller, a lawyer with the American Humanist Association, which is representing the plaintiffs.
The group advocates for people who do not believe in God.
County Commissioner J. Douglas Howard said the board will hold a closed-door session Tuesday to discuss with its attorneys how to proceed. Commissioners voted April 8 to refrain from naming Jesus in prayers and it is not yet clear whether the board will now take another vote to reverse that policy.
The board also faces a contempt complaint from plaintiffs who say commissioners violated the court's order when a resident recited a Christian prayer at a meeting in early April.
Although similar prayers are common in Congress and state legislatures, the high court was asked to rule specifically on whether they are acceptable for local boards, where members of the public participate in the proceedings.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that people often come across speech they find objectionable — even at government meetings — and that such speech did not necessarily violate the Constitution.
"They may have invoked the name of Jesus, but they also invoked universal themes, by calling for a 'spirit of cooperation,'" Kennedy wrote. "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."
David Masci, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, said the decision clarified questions left unanswered by a 1983 decision upholding prayers given before meetings of the Nebraska Legislature — namely, whether it was constitutional to frame the prayers in a particular religion, such as by naming Christ or the "Holy Spirit."
"People were wondering whether the Constitution would allow such things, and this case makes it very clear that it does," Masci said. "The terrain has shifted."
Carroll County established its current practice after the county altered its form of government and opted to elect its commissioners by district beginning with the 2010 election. Unlike in Greece, where the board brought in clergy from the community, the Carroll County commissioners take turns offering prayer themselves.
Bruce Hake and Neil Ridgely, who brought the lawsuit against the county, said they felt excluded by the commissioners' practice. Ridgely, who attends most of the meetings, says that for several months, every commissioner chose a prayer that favored Christianity.
By contrast, in Greece, town officials said that nearly all of the congregations they could draw from in the community were Christian.
Ridgely referred questions to an attorney, who could not be reached for comment.
In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan laid out a hypothetical case in which a Muslim goes before a board to request a permit but first confronts a "minister deputized by the town" asking her to pray in the name of Christ. The Muslim would have to choose between praying alongside the majority or somehow registering her objection, such as by not bowing her head, and risk offending others in the room.
"In this country, when citizens go before the government, they go not as Christians or Muslims or Jews (or what have you), but just as Americans," she wrote. "That is what it means to be an equal citizen, irrespective of religion."
The decision drew a positive reaction from several congressional Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner, who said it "protects a ritual older than our republic."
"God bless America indeed," he added.
Experts had varying opinions on the implications for settling long-standing debates about the often complicated intersection of government and religion.
"It looks like the court is essentially going to say that if you do not rub people's face in it really explicitly, we're going to sustain government expression of religion in the public sphere," said Mark Graber, professor of law and government, University of Maryland law school.
Michael I. Meyerson, a law professor at the University of Baltimore whose 2012 book, "Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America," was cited in the decision, said the way the justices split gives less insight than some had hoped for about what kind of prayer is appropriate and what may be off limits.
"The litigation," Meyerson said, "isn't over."
Baltimore Sun Reporter Matthew Hay Brown contributed to this article.