BLOG: Court rules prayer before council meetings are constitutional

Starting a city council meeting with a prayer that favors one religion was ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court following a 5 to 4 ruling on Monday.

 In a case that challenged a New York town’s practice of starting its council meetings with a Christian prayer, the court ruled that the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion was not violated when a religion-specific prayer is offered.

Like many cities, Oklahoma City begins its council meetings with a prayer from a member of the local religious community.

“I think we have had almost every religion out there in the past,” said Steve Hill, chief of staff for Mayor Mick Cornett. “We reach out to any and all religions.”

A review of meeting minutes since the start of 2013 show that all but three invocations were offered by a Christian minister.

The majority of prayers are from Christian and evangelical ministers; however, ministers of other faiths have been invited in the past. Rabbi Abby Jacobson of the Jewish Emanuel Synagogue delivered a prayer last year, along with two representatives from organizations that include multiple religions.

Hill said no one has ever declined an invitation for religious reasons, and the city does not give any guidelines for the prayer, other than to keep it brief.

“We don’t tell them what they should or shouldn’t say,” Hill said.

The Supreme Court’s ruling overturned a lower court’s previous ruling that prayers before a government meeting violated the Constitution.

In his written opinion for the majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the town of Greece, N.Y., which was named in the original lawsuit, neither “directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, [nor] indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity.”

Justice Elena Kagan wrote the dissent and said the starting prayer was akin to government-sponsored worship.

“When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another,” Kagan wrote. “And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines. . . . The Town of Greece betrayed that promise.”

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