Sectarian Prayers at Town Board Meetings

In Town of Greece, New York v. Calloway (No. 12—696, May 5, 2014), the Supreme Court held that sectarian prayers can be presented at official government meetings without running afoul of the Constitution’s prohibition on establishment of religion. Professor John Inazu explained that the 5-4 split on the decision is a familiar one. What was surprising, he said, is that “all of the Justices seemed to endorse some kind of legislative prayer.” 

John Inazu Associate Professor of Law and Political Science  Washington University

John Inazu
Associate Professor of Law and Political Science 
Washington University

Greece, N.Y. allowed local ministers to deliver prayers at town board meetings containing beliefs specific to particular Christian denominations. The majority said such prayers are legally permissible as long as the government does not discriminate among those seeking to present a prayer. According to Prof. Inazu, Justice Kennedy’s opinion seems to be signaling a movement by the Court away from the endorsement test.in prayer cases. Prior cases have looked at endorsement versus coercion, according to Prof. Inazu: “How coercive was the prayer” was the question. The opinion doesn’t spell how much would be too much. Discrimination was not a serious issue here because of the demographics of this community.

According to Prof. Inazu, Justice Kagan’s concern about “blindness” seems to be that the Court was not putting itself in the shoes of the two non-believers in the meeting room who brought the action. It would not be hard to imagine a case arising in a different community where the situation presented to the Court would be quite different. 

Professor John Inazu’s scholarship focuses on the First Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly, and religion, and related questions of legal and political theory. His first book, Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly (Yale University Press, 2012), seeks to recover the role of assembly in American political and constitutional thought. Professor Inazu's work is also published or forthcoming in the Cornell Law Review, Hastings Law Journal, Law and Contemporary Problems, and a number of other law reviews and specialty journals.  Prior to joining the law faculty, Professor Inazu was a visiting assistant professor at Duke University School of Law and a Royster Fellow at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He clerked for Judge Roger L. Wollman of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit and served for four years as an associate general counsel with the Department of the Air Force at the Pentagon.  The Legal Broadcast Network, provides online, on-demand, legal video content, provided by attorneys, law professors and others from around the world.  The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of Sequence Media Group.