An interesting decision yesterday from the Second Circuit dealing with the issue of legislative prayer. The town of Greece, New York, had begun its town board meeting sessions with a prayer since 1999; the town had a practice of inviting different people to give the opening prayer. Objecting town residents sued in 2008 and the district court granted summary judgment for the defendant town.
In a panel decision authored by Judge Guido Calabresi, the Second Circuit reversed. Crucial to the Court’s reversal was that in practice almost all of the prayers had been delivered by Christian clergy members — “from 1999 through 2007, every prayer-giver who gave the invocation met this description.” After 2008 and the receipt of complaints, a Wiccan and Jewish prayer were delivered, but then between 2009 and 2010, the town again invited only Christians. Typically the invocations “gave thanks” for life in the town and “requested assistance” with governance, “begin[ning] with some variant of ‘let us pray,’ and then  speak[ing] about the matters for which ‘we’ pray . . . . Members of the audience and the Board have bowed their heads, stood, and participated in the prayer by saying ‘Amen,'” or on occasion by making the sign of the cross. About 2/3 of the prayers contained specific references to Jesus Christ, while the remaining third “spoke in more generally theistic terms.”
The case was one of first impression for the Second Circuit on the issue of the constitutionality of legislative prayers. In construing Marsh v. Chambers and County of Allegheny v. ACLU, and in considering various circuit court precedent addressing the issue of legislative prayer, the Court took a very interesting position. It held that “denominational” references in legislative prayers are permissible, and that the distinction between “sectarian” and “nonsectarian” prayer is untenable. Here’s a portion of the Court’s decision: