Prayer At Public Meetings

Prayer at public meetings has been a part of the fabric of American life throughout the history of the United States. Our nation has a tradition of commencing public proceedings with prayer; in fact, before the United States even existed, prayers were offered at meetings of the Continental Congress. Both the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives employ chaplains who open sessions of each House of Congress with prayer.  State and local governments across the United States also allow prayers to be offered at public meetings. 

Unfortunately, some Americans view public prayer within our halls of government as a threat to American freedom and a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. In recent years, anti-prayer activists brought a case to the Supreme Court of the United States challenging the practice of commencing public meetings with prayer. That case—Town of Greece v. Galloway—was decided in May 2014; the Court held that a town’s practice of commencing government proceedings with prayer did not constitute an “establishment of religion” in violation of the First Amendment. The Court reasoned that prayers to commence public proceedings are “meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage. 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.” Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. _______ (2014). The Court added that so long as prayers at public meetings fit within the American tradition of ceremonial public prayer and do not involve a pattern of proselytizing others or denigrating different faiths, such prayers do not violate the Constitution. On the other hand, the Court indicated that a municipality that coerced individuals into participating in a prayer would run afoul of the First Amendment.

The Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway makes it clear that prayer at public meetings is permissible if it falls within the American tradition of such prayers. For further information on prayer at public meetings, municipal officials are advised to contact the Alliance Defending Freedom.