High court ruling favors prayer at council meeting

FILE - In this April 26, 2014 file photo, people walk on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. The Supreme Court said Monday that prayers that open town council meetings do not violate the Constitution even if they routinely stress Christianity.

Most of South Carolina's state and local leaders hailed a U.S. Supreme Court ruling Monday that said prayers opening government meetings don't violate the Constitution, even if they routinely stress Christianity.

The 5-4 decision was hailed by state Attorney General Alan Wilson, among others.

Wilson said the right to pray, including at town hall meetings, is protected by the First Amendment. He said Monday's ruling "provides much-needed clarity for public officials, and upholds a fundamental principle of the Constitution - which is one's freedom to seek higher counsel when debating policies at the local, state and federal levels of government."

Wilson's office had filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of Greece, N.Y., a small town outside Rochester. The Obama administration sided with the town. The court said while such public prayers may focus on Christianity, they may not denigrate non-Christians or proselytize.

North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey also supported the ruling. "I just think it's very appropriate that they've done that," Summey said.

North Charleston allows believers from any faith to say a prayer at the start of a council meeting. An atheist led the invocation at one meeting, he said.

"He did an excellent job," Summey said.

In 1983, the court upheld an opening prayer in the Nebraska legislature and said that prayer is part of the nation's fabric, not a violation of the First Amendment. Monday's ruling was consistent with the earlier one.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the prayers are ceremonial and in keeping with the nation's traditions.

"The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers," Kennedy said.

For decades, the city of Charleston also has opened its City Council meetings with prayers, many of which have had a strong Christian tone.

Charleston City Councilman Gary White said council members rotate leading these prayers, which range from traditional to words of reflection to moments of silence.

White, who has held his seat since 2007, said he's not aware of anybody having a problem with the prayers. Perhaps that's because council members are sensitive to people of different faiths. "Everybody goes into it understanding spirituality and religion is different for everyone," he said.

"But I'm fully in support of prayer, not only at council, but in schools and other places," he said, as long as it's done sensitively.

Mount Pleasant Town Council also opens its meetings with prayer by someone from the Coastal Crisis Chaplaincy.

Until recently, Mount Pleasant Town Councilman Ken Glasson led the council's prayer before meetings, and he said he never received complaints. He did receive a request to refrain from specific mention of Jesus during the prayer before a meeting to honor local Holocaust survivors, and he said he did so.

Town Councilman Chris Nickels applauded the ruling, saying, "This is a strong reminder that the Constitution doesn't remove religion from the public sphere."

And Councilman Chris O'Neal said he and other elected officials are tasked with making important decisions that affect many people, "and I believe those who are elected benefit from prayers offered at the beginning of public meetings."

Monday's ruling also pleased Oran Smith, director of the S.C. Palmetto Family Council, which has advocated for public prayer.

"Our efforts since 2005 have called for open expressions of faith at public events no matter what the specific religion," Smith said. "Our opponents wanted all religion to be purged from public life. We wanted freedom, and by God's grace, we won."

Smith noted that state Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Isle of Palms, wrote the S.C. Public Invocation Act, which took effect in 2008 and allows prayer at the start of government meetings as long as it doesn't advance any one faith - or disparage any other faith or belief.

Former S.C. Attorney General Henry McMaster, who defended Great Falls in a similar case, said Monday's ruling was a "long time coming."

"We fought off frivolous lawsuits on behalf of our citizens time and again on this very issue," he added. "We don't need the ACLU, federal government or anyone else interfering with South Carolinians fundamental right to Freedom of Religion."

But Victoria Middleton, executive director of South Carolina's ACLU chapter, said the ruling was disappointing. "It opens the door for people of minority faiths to be treated like second-class citizens at their own local board meetings," she said. "Despite the disappointment, it is important to note that the Court did recognize that there are limits to such prayers. It's not an 'anything goes' decision."

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court's four liberal justices, said, "I respectfully dissent from the Court's opinion because I think the Town of Greece's prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality - the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian."

Kagan said the case differs significantly from the 1983 decision because "Greece's town meetings involve participation by ordinary citizens, and the invocations given - directly to those citizens - were predominantly sectarian in content."

A federal appeals court in New York ruled that Greece violated the Constitution by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers that stressed Christianity.

From 1999 through 2007, and again from January 2009 through June 2010, every meeting was opened with a Christian-oriented invocation. In 2008, after residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens complained, four of 12 meetings were opened by non-Christians, including a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and the chairman of the local Baha'i congregation.

A town employee each month selected clerics or lay people by using a local published guide of churches. The guide did not include non-Christian denominations, however. The appeals court found that religious institutions in the town of just under 100,000 people are primarily Christian, and even Galloway and Stephens testified they knew of no non-Christian places of worship there.

The two residents filed suit and a trial court ruled in the town's favor, finding that the town did not intentionally exclude non-Christians. It also said that the content of the prayer was not an issue because there was no desire to proselytize or demean other faiths.

But a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that even with the high court's 1983 ruling, the practice of having one Christian prayer after another amounted to the town's endorsement of Christianity.

Kennedy, however, said judges should not be involved in evaluating the content of prayer because it could lead to legislatures requiring "chaplains to redact the religious content from their message in order to make it acceptable for the public sphere."

He added, "Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy."

Kennedy himself was the author an opinion in 1992 that held that a Christian prayer delivered at a high school graduation did violate the Constitution. The justice said Monday there are differences between the two situations, including the age of the audience and the fact that attendees at the council meeting may step out of the room if they do not like the prayer.

Kennedy and his four colleagues in the majority all are Catholic. They are: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

In her dissent, Kagan said the council meeting prayers are unlike those said to open sessions of Congress and state legislatures, where elected officials are the intended audience. In Greece, "the prayers there are directed squarely at the citizens," she said. Kagan was joined by Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. Of the four, three are Jewish and Sotomayor is Catholic.

Kagan also noted what she described as the meetings' intimate setting, with 10 or so people sitting in front of the town's elected and top appointed officials. Children and teenagers are likely to be present, she said.

The case is Greece v. Galloway, 12-696

Post and Courier reporters Prentiss Findlay Jennifer Hawes and Diane Knich and The Associated Press contributed to this report.