Pluralism or Non-Sectarianism: The Supreme Court on Government Invocations

Town of Greece v. Galloway, 2014

On the issue of invocations at government ceremonies, the most relevant Supreme Court decision is Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014). Two citizens from the town of Greece, NY objected to the sectarian nature of the invocations given at town council meetings. They sued the city, demanding an end to sectarian prayers at the assembly. They wanted the town to adopt a policy that only inclusive or non-sectarian prayers were acceptable. In writing the opinion of the court, Justice Kennedy provided a description of the facts of the case. The following is an abridged version of that portion of the decision.

The town followed an informal method for selecting prayer givers, all of whom were unpaid volunteers. The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation. But nearly all of the congregations in town were Christian; and from 1999 to 2007, all of the participating ministers were too. [The town] neither reviewed the prayers in advance of the meetings nor provided guidance as to their tone or content, in the belief that exercising any degree of control over the prayers would infringe both the free exercise and speech rights of the ministers. The town instead left the guest clergy free to compose their own devotions. The resulting prayers often sounded both civic and religious themes. Some of the ministers spoke in a distinctly Christian idiom.

[The suit against the town] did not seek an end to the prayer practice, but rather requested an injunction that would limit the town to “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers that referred only to a “generic God” and would not associate the government with any one faith or belief.

The town won the case in U.S. district court, lost in the court of appeals, and won again in the Supreme Court.

In my reading of the decision, the court’s opinion established the following points. Much of the wording that follows is drawn directly from the decision itself. And remember that I am a pastor and an Army officer, not a lawyer.

  • Ceremonial invocations lend gravity to public proceedings. They are a part of our national heritage, a recognition of the role that religion holds in the lives of our citizens, and a means of accommodating the spiritual needs of those for whom they are delivered.
  • Ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion. Even those who disagree as to religious doctrine may find common ground in the desire to show respect for their fellow citizens in all aspects of their lives and being.
  • Historically, invocations have served universal ends even when they were cast in sectarian terms. Prayers that seek blessings of peace, justice, and freedom find appreciation among people of all faiths. That a prayer is given in the name of Jesus, Allah, or Jehovah, or that it makes passing reference to religious doctrines, does not remove it from that tradition.
  • Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.
  • The act of offering a brief, solemn, and respectful prayer at the beginning of government events does not compel citizens to engage in a religious observance.
  • The government does not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate. Offense does not equate to coercion. Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation does not take place every time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views.
  • The government acknowledges our growing diversity not by proscribing sectarian content in prayers but by welcoming prayers of many creeds.
  • An insistence on nonsectarian prayer as a single, fixed standard is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer in the United States.
  • To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the government to act as a supervisor and censor of religious speech, a practice that would excessively involve the government in religious matters.
  • Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy.
  • The government does not edit or approve prayers before they are delivered.
  • The government does not commend or criticize prayers after they are delivered.
  • All who are present – including leaders – are free to bow their heads, make the sign of the cross, say “Amen” or make some other religious sign during the invocation as an act of devotion or an expression of assent; they are also free to refrain from doing so.
  • The government does not favor citizens who agree with an invocation, nor does it discriminate against those who disagree with an invocation.
  • Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites the participants to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends, serves a legitimate function. If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, the practice falls short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite the participants in their common effort.

Some thoughts from Justice Breyer’s dissent are also useful, I think, for governmental entities that incorporate volunteer-led invocations in their ceremonial activities.

  • The government should make a conscientious, good faith effort to offer constituents of different faiths the opportunity to offer the invocation.
  • Even though the government neither prescribes nor censors religious speech, there is nothing to prohibit the government from explaining to those who give the prayers the nature of the occasion and the audience.

The entire decision is here:



2 thoughts on “Pluralism or Non-Sectarianism: The Supreme Court on Government Invocations”

  1. What I don’t like about this ruling is that it emboldens municipal leaders to push for sectarian invocations. I have read news reports of city and town councils favoring Protestant invocations, to the near exclusion of other Christian faiths and other religions altogether.

    A typical list of scheduled invocations would be top-heavy with Baptists (either self-declared Baptists, or euphemistically called “non-denominational” or “Bible believing”). In municipalities with a sizable immigrant population, you would get a lot of Catholics, Orthodox, or regional denominations leading the invocation. One out of ten invocation would be a token non-Christian invocation (usually Jewish). And don’t expect a Muslim invocation, that would ruffle too many feathers and will lead to demonstrations and angry phone calls and letter.

    We are still a strongly sectarian people. Denominationalism may be dying but it is still there.


  2. Repeatedly the supreme court has been aggregiously wrong in its decisions. This is one of the very few recent instances in which the supreme court has actually managed to be on the right side of justice.


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