Vickie Sandell Stangl: Limits on legislative prayer

05/23/2014 12:00 AM

05/22/2014 5:46 PM

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Greece v. Galloway that local governments can open their meetings with ceremonial prayer, including religion-specific references. But public officials and citizens should understand the court also made clear in this ruling that the First Amendment imposes important limits on the practice of ceremonial prayer:

•  Government cannot exclude potential speakers on the basis of religion; if it relies on outsiders to deliver a solemnizing message to open meetings, it must allow monotheists, polytheists and nonbelievers to deliver messages.
•  Guest speakers should address their invocation remarks to the lawmakers and not to members of the public.
•  Government officials cannot ask audience members to stand and bow their heads or otherwise direct the audience to participate in the prayer.
•  Government officials need to step in if speakers make hostile statements about religious minorities or nonbelievers, threaten damnation or preach conversion.
•  Prayers should be made during the ceremonial portion of the meeting and not during policymaking time.
•  Public schools did not exist at the time of the founding; therefore, no historical justification exists for prayers to be made at school board meetings. Every court that has considered the question has held the Constitution prohibits school boards from opening their meetings with prayers.

Nothing in the decision requires local legislative bodies to open with prayers. Many municipalities have discontinued the practice, feeling it always favors some point of view over others. Municipalities that choose to continue with the practice are advised to follow the practice of the U.S. Congress, which asks invocation-givers to be mindful of religious diversity.

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