State/Church FAQ

Prayers at Government Meetings

Is an Establishment Clause violation occurring at government meetings?

One of the most frequent complaints to the Freedom From Religion Foundation from the public over state/church violations concerns government officials opening government meetings with prayer.

It is inappropriate for public officials—many of whom have tax-paid positions and all of whom take an oath to uphold secular constitutions—to schedule prayer at government functions, or open government meetings with prayer and religious ritual.

While the U.S. Supreme Court has issued two unhelpful decisions about prayer at legislative meetings, you can still complain when you encounter government prayer. Just because the Supreme Court carved out an exception for some legislative prayer does not mean legislatures must schedule prayer. They are free to embrace secularism and to be responsive to citizen complaints and the need to avoid excluding constituents.

Without going to court, citizens and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have successfully halted sectarian prayer by local governments. Citizens have even persuaded local boards to drop prayer altogether or to substitute a moment of silence.

Citizens of all religions or no religion are compelled to come before local government bodies on civic, secular matters: variances, sewers, permits, licenses, repair, etc. They should not be subjected to a religious show or test, or be expected to bow heads and demonstrate religious obeisance at a government function. (We fail to see why divine guidance is needed over such earthly matters, anyway.)

Nor is it necessary to pray on taxpayers’ time and dime. Members of government boards are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. When government bodies lend their power and prestige to religion, this amounts to a governmental endorsement that exclude one-fifth of the population —today one in five adult Americans is nonreligious. This practice inevitably will turn minorities, including atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Wiccans, into second-class citizens. Even when prayers are “nondenominational,” there is no way a government body may conduct prayer that will not inevitably exclude, divide and embarrass at least some taxpayers and constituents.

Even the Jesus of the New Testament condemned public prayer: “Enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret” (Matt. 6:5-13).

Observing a strict separation of church and state will offend no one and include all citizens.

State of the Law on Legislative Prayer

Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983)

In 1983 the Supreme Court ruled in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), that the Nebraska legislature's tradition of opening with a prayer by a paid chaplain was constitutional. Nebraska State Senator Ernie Chambers challenged the practice as violative of the Establishment Clause. The Marsh decision carved out a narrow exception to the Establishment Clause, as well as established Court doctrine, as a nod to history and custom; however, the Court made clear that “Standing alone, historical patterns cannot justify contemporary violations of constitutional guarantees . . . ” Marsh, 463 U.S. at 790. In the Court's language:

To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an “establishment” of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.

If a legislative prayer were to exceed the confines of the circumstances outlined in Marsh, then no such exception would apply. First and foremost, the prayer opportunity must not be “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” Id. at 794. The audience in Marsh was construed as comprising only legislators, represented by the plaintiff, Sen. Ernie Chambers. The Court found that such an audience would not be “readily susceptible to ‘religious indoctrination’.” 

The Court found no “impermissible motive” in appointing chaplains. Likewise, the Court found that, as the content of the prayers was both non-sectarian and non-denominational, although in the Judeo-Christian tradition, no attempt was being made to either proselytize or advance any one faith or belief, or to disparage any other. The Court noted that the chaplain had, in fact, previously determined to remove all references to Jesus Christ in his prayers. Ultimately, the Court dismissed the idea that legislative prayer poses any real, inherent threat to the Establishment Clause, barring circumstances other than those stipulated in Marsh.

A nice postscript: Following this decision, Senator Chambers was successful in persuading his fellow legislators to drop payment and go to a system of volunteer chaplains, thus minimizing the cost to taxpayers. Not all victories require a Supreme Court ruling.

Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. ____, 134 S. Ct. 1811 (2014)

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court directly addressed the issue of prayer at governmental meetings for the first time since Marsh. In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled not only that municipal or county bodies may host prayers at meetings, but that such prayers can be pervasively sectarian (e.g., Christian in nature).  This ruling was a major blow to both the constitutional separation between religion and government, and the rights of nonbelievers and minority believers. 

After Marsh was handed down, some federal courts agreed that sectarian prayers – that invoked a specific deity (i.e., “in the name of Jesus Christ”) – offended the Establishment Clause and were outside the constraints of the exception carved out in Marsh.  In Galloway, the Supreme Court clarified its prior ruling:

An insistence on nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer outlined in the Court’s cases.  The Court found the prayers in Marsh consistent with the First Amendment not because they espoused only a generic theism but because our history and tradition have shown that prayer in this limited context could ‘exist with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.’  The Congress that drafted the First Amendment would have been accustomed to the invocations containing explicating religious themes of the sort respondents find objectionable. (internal citations omitted)

In Marsh the Supreme Court noted the chaplain “removed all references to Christ.” This led many to argue that prayers before legislative meetings must be nonsectarian and nondenominational.  In Galloway, the Court rejected this argument too:

To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact …

The Court also rejected any argument that the prayer practices at local town board or city council meetings force citizens to participate in religious ritual.  Instead, the Court ruled:

[The prayer practice’s] purposes are to lend gravity to public proceedings and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens, not to afford government an opportunity to proselytize or force truant constituents into the pews … That many appreciate these acknowledgements of the divine in our public institutions does not suggest that those who disagree are compelled to join the expression or approve its content.

Additionally, the Court reasoned that the prayers are not even intended for all in attendance, but rather, only for the benefit of the lawmakers themselves. This conclusion was reached despite the fact that the prayer officiant in Greece would ask the audience to rise and bow their heads, and would face the audience rather than the Greece town board. 

More disconcerting is how the Court chose to view nonbelievers’ objections to prayer before civic meetings:

Should nonbelievers choose to exit the room during a prayer they find distasteful, their absence will not stand out as disrespectful or even noteworthy.  And should they remain, their quiet acquiescence will not, in light of our traditions, be interpreted as an agreement with the words or ideas expressed.  Neither choice represents an unconstitutional imposition as to mature adults, who ‘presumably’ are ‘not readily susceptible to religious indoctrination or peer pressure.’ (internal quotations and citations omitted)

A nice Postscript: Dan Courtney, a Greece-area resident and an atheist, delivered the first secular invocation before the Town of Greece’s meeting on July 15, 2014.  A full transcript of his invocation is below.

Prayer at Government Meetings Can Still Cross the Line

Galloway did not foreclose all limits on governmental prayer.  The Court stated, 

…the Court does not imply that no constraints remain on its content… Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function.

It continued:

If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common efforts.  That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.

Reiterating a constraint outlined by the Court previously in Marsh, the Court stated:

Prayer that reflects beliefs specific to only some creeds can still serve to solemnize the occasion, so longs as the practice over time is not ‘exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.’

It further noted, some prayer practices could be coercive:

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.

Ultimately, the Court concluded:

Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of the prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation.  Marsh, indeed, requires an inquiry into the prayer opportunity as a whole, rather than into the contents of a single prayer.

Thus, Galloway explicitly applies to practices in which:

  • local clergy are invited to deliver the prayer (if elected officials are delivering the prayers themselves, the practice is still constitutionally suspect)
  • citizens aren’t forced to participate in the prayer
  • the prayers don’t create a longstanding pattern of denigrating other religions, threatening damnation, or seeking to convert non-adherents

The ruling also suggests that city councils or county boards that invite local clergy members to deliver the opening prayers should strive to be inclusive of all religions and non-religion.   The Court noted in the opinion at the outset:

The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver.  Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.

FFRF encourages you to monitor your government’s prayer practices for the above exceptions, and notify us if you can document a pattern of disparagement and conversion.  We also encourage you to speak up. The Supreme Court may have “blessed” governmental prayer, but no legislature, city or county board is required to pray. Many enlightened governmental bodies around the national have dropped prayer to avoid divisiveness and to be inclusive.

Justice Kagan aptly noted: “[C]ircumstances here demand … the recognition that we are a pluralistic people too … the government must take especial care to ensure that the prayers they hear will seek to include, rather than serve to divide.  No more is required – but that much is crucial – to treat every citizen, of whatever religion, as an equal participant in her government.” 

Also, government prayer in contexts besides city and county legislative meetings remain subject to the Establishment Clause. Notably, at least two federal courts of appeals have ruled that prayers at school board meetings are unconstitutional. 

You Have the Right to Request a Secular Invocation

Another crucial feature of the Supreme Court’s decision in Galloway was its finding that the town of Greece “at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver.” Though Greece created its initial list of invocation givers by having a “town employee . . . call the congregations listed in a local directory until she found a minister available for that month’s meeting,” the town demonstrated a willingness to go beyond its list and allow others to give invocations. At one point the town invited a Jewish layperson (not a member of the clergy) to give an invocation and when a Wiccan priestess requested to give an opening prayer, the town granted her the opportunity. The town also “maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation” (emphasis added).

Despite these references in the Greece case, which should be taken by governmental bodies as a directive that they should permit atheists to give invocations and be willing to include a diversity of religious viewpoints, it is expected that some governmental bodies will resist inclusivity. Such city, town and county boards may unfortunately read into the Greece decision only that “majority rules” when it comes to religion, and consider the decision an excuse to continue scheduling only Christian clergy (or at most token non-Christian clergy). The ruling did not address the constitutionality of governmental prayer that is led exclusively by elected officials, for example. The Greece ruling will undoubtedly inspire discord, controversy and many future lawsuits. 

 

FFRF asks you to consider participating in its Nothing Fails Like Prayer Contest, which encourages nonbelievers to request the right to give “atheist homilies” and secular invocations before local governmental bodies. Here’s how to enter

Notable Godless Invocations

For your enjoyment, below are notable godless invocations given (or attempted to be given) before various legislative bodies across the country.

Dan Courtney, an atheist and FFRF life member, delivered the following secular invocation before the Town of Greece, NY meeting on July 15, 2014.

Thank you, members of the town board. Thank you, Supervisor Rielich, for allowing me to offer the invocation.

Freethinkers, atheists, non-believers, whatever label you wish, this group comprises a significant part of our population. I am honored to be providing an invocation on their behalf, and on behalf of all the citizens of the town of Greece.

On July 4th, 1776, the 56 men, who pledged their lives to the document that changed the course of history, agreed to the central tenet that, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” 

More than 238 years later this central premise still echoes, however faintly, from the town hall to the white columned halls of Washington. 

Yet this premise, this foundation necessary for a free and flourishing society, is today, more than ever, under assault. 

This central pillar of a free society; this notion that is deeply heretical to authoritarian culture, proclaims that it is from the people that moral authority is derived. 

It is that within us, the citizens, that knowledge and wisdom must emerge.

The preservation of this premise does not come from accepting the status quo, but by asserting our rights and exercising our duties.

That this premise still endures testifies to its truth, and we can say with confidence that it is in seeking the counsel of our conscience that we find the beginning of wisdom. It is in the exercise of our duty as citizens that we find the beginning of knowledge. 

We, as citizens, the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega of our destiny are not, as the great philosopher Immanuel Kant warned, mere means to the ends of another, but we are ends in ourselves.

This basic premise, this profound idea, guides us such that we need not kneel to any king, and we need not bow to any tyrant.

So I ask all officials present here, as guarantors of our founder’s revolutionary proclamation, to heed the counsel of the governed; to seek the wisdom of all citizens, and to honor the enlightened wisdom and the profound courage of those 56 brave men. Thank you.

Arizona State Rep. Juan Mendez, an atheist, delivered the following invocation before the Arizona State House of Representatives on May 21, 2013.

Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads. I would like to ask that you not bow your heads. I would like to ask that you to take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people in our state.

 

This is a room in which there are many challenging debates, many moments of tension, of ideological division, of frustration. But this is also a room where, as my Secular Humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love…

 

Carl Sagan once wrote, “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” There is, in the political process, much to bear. In this room, let us cherish and celebrate our shared humanness, our shared capacity for reason and compassion, our shared love for the people of our state, for our Constitution, for our democracy — and let us root our policymaking process in these values that are relevant to all Arizonans regardless of religious belief or nonbelief. In gratitude and in love, in reason and in compassion, let us work together for a better Arizona.

 

Tom Snyder, an atheist, requested to give the invocation printed below before his city council meeting in Murray, Utah.  The city denied his request and he sued.  In a 1998 decision (pre-Galloway), the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the City’s denial, which was based on the content of the prayer. 

OUR MOTHER, who art in heaven (if, indeed there is a heaven and if there is a god that takes a woman's form) hallowed be thy name, we ask for thy blessing for and guidance of those that will participate in this meeting and for those mortals that govern the state of Utah;

We fervently ask that you guide the leaders of this city, Salt Lake County and the state of Utah so that they may see the wisdom of separating church and state and so that they will never again perform demeaning religious ceremonies as part of official government functions;

We pray that you prevent self-righteous politicians from mis-using the name of God in conducting government meetings; and, that you lead them away from the hypocritical and blasphemous deception of the public, attempting to make the people believe that bureaucrats' decisions and actions have thy stamp of approval if prayers are offered at the beginning of government meetings;

We ask that you grant Utah's leaders and politicians enough courage and discernment to understand that religion is a private matter between every individual and his or her deity; we beseech thee to educate government leaders that religious beliefs should not be broadcast and revealed for the purpose of impressing others; we pray that you strike down those that mis-use your name and those that cheapen the institution of prayer by using it for their own selfish political gains;

We ask that the people of the state of Utah will some day learn the wisdom of the separation of church and state; we ask that you will teach the people of Utah that government should not participate in religion; we pray that you smite those government officials that would attempt to censor or control prayers made by anyone to you or to any other of our gods;

We ask that you deliver us from the evil of forced religious worship now sought to be imposed upon the people of the state of Utah by the actions of mis-guided, weak and stupid politicians, who abuse power in their own self-righteousness;

All of this we ask in thy name and in the name of thy son (if in fact you had a son that visited Earth) for the eternal betterment of all of us who populate the great state of Utah. 

Amen.

Updated August 2014.

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