Supreme Court Approves the Practice of Prayer Leaders Opening Town Meetings
Today the very sharply divided US Supreme Court approved a small town’s practice of inviting ministers and other faith leaders to provide opening prayers prior to beginning a town meeting, even though the prayer leaders were overwhelmingly Christian (four non Christians led prayer over a period of nine years). The 5-4 decision found the prayers acceptable because they did not “coerce” participation. This is a more lenient view of the permissible intertwine of religious/public matters than the previously understood prohibition that an act could not be viewed as “endorsing” religion. Here, the prayer occurred at a “ceremonial” part of the meeting rather than during official business, and did not proselytize for a specific sect.
This decision reflects a Court deeply divided on the role and Constitutional protection of religion in public activity. Religious issues currently before the Court or heading there directly include: whether the federal government can impose employment requirements (the Affordable Care Act provisions regarding birth control) on private employers who find the requirements in violation of their religious beliefs (Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius); whether private businesses can be compelled to provide services to same sex marriage ceremonies in violation of religious beliefs (numerous test cases winding through the system); and whether a public school can hold its graduation ceremonies in a church owned building that displays religious symbols (Elmbrook School Dist.). Additionally, employers can expect to see cases testing the degree to which an employer with sincerely held religious beliefs must accommodate conflicting sincerely held religious beliefs of their employees.