The Traditional Frame: Justice Kagan’s Dissent and Justice Alito’s Concurrence in Town of Greece

In this post, I’ll offer a few comments on Justice Kagan’s principal dissent in Town of Greece v. Galloway, which was joined by Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Ginsburg (Justice Breyer also dissented separately). I’ll also briefly consider Justice Alito’s concurrence, which takes on some of the points in the main dissent. I should add that in these posts I am only describing what I take to be notable features of these decisions. I am not intending to evaluate them on the merits, with one small exception at the end of this post.

The most unexpected feature of the dissent is that it accepts the traditional frame propounded by the majority. The dissent explicitly repudiates strict separationism: “I do not contend that principle [of religious equality] translates here to a bright separationist line. To the contrary, I agree with the Court’s decision in Marsh v. Chambers upholding the Nebraska legislature’s tradition of beginning each session with a chaplain’s prayer.” Justice Kagan makes a point later of saying that she thinks Marsh was correctly decided. Indeed, not a single justice of this Court accepted the Brennan/Marshall position in Marsh.

That’s remarkable, inasmuch as Marsh is frequently described in rather unflattering terms by many of my esteemed colleagues: outlier, carve-out, aberration, inconsistent with the doctrine, unprincipled, a vestige of a bygone age–these are generally representative of the legal academy’s dim view of Marsh. And, indeed, it is true that Marsh seems to stand alone against the coursing flow of modern establishment doctrine. Here was a chance for those members of the Court that felt something like this way about Marsh, or worse, to say so–to take a stand in favor of lopping off this traditionary annoyance without very much hurt at all to the primary stream of contemporary establishment doctrine. Yet nobody did.

Instead, the methodological path of the dissent is to accept the traditional frame and then to argue that the facts in this case do not fit within a correct interpretation or reading of that tradition: “And so I agree with the majority that the issue here is “whether the prayer practice in the Town of Greece fits within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures.” Where I depart from the majority is in my reply to that question….[T]he prayer in Greece departs from the legislative tradition that the majority takes as its benchmark.”

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Yesterday’s Decision in Town of Greece

Another Establishment Clause case, another 5-4 decision. Another fact-specific ruling in which Justice Kennedy provided the deciding vote. Another separate opinion by Justice Thomas arguing that it makes no sense to apply the Establishment Clause against the States in the first place. More high-blown rhetoric about What American Means and why the Court’s decision honors our traditions or betrays them. Just another day at the office for the Justices.

It’s possible to see yesterday’s decision in Town of Greece, the legislative prayer case, as just one more, muddy Establishment Clause case that doesn’t settle much of anything. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court doesn’t announce a hard-and-fast rule. Indeed, he wrote, “it is not necessary to define the precise boundary of the Establishment Clause where history shows that [a] specific practice is permitted.” Legislative prayer has a very long history in America, dating back at least to the Framing. The Town of Greece’s practice of having prayer before the start of  town board meetings fell within that tradition. The Justices adduced several facts to support this: the town had made reasonable efforts to be inclusive, selecting clergy at random from a community guide; prayers took place before the part of the meeting devoted to legislative business; people could come and go as they pleased; there was no indication that the town had deliberately discriminated against minority religions. In a helpful concurrence, Justice Alito pointed out that the difference between the Court’s opinion and Justice Kagan’s dissent turned on disagreements about the proper interpretation of one or two facts.

All this is true. We may look back at Town of Greece as a narrow holding without great consequence. Yet something tells me this decision could turn out to be quite significant. Let me make two quick observations about what I see as important themes in the case: the rejection of nonsectarianism and the embrace of localism.

First, the Court stated very clearly that neutrality does not require that legislative prayer be nonsectarian. It is constitutionally permissible, the Court held, for a town to invite only Christian clergy–or just about–to offer prayers, as long as the town does not intentionally discriminate against minority religions and as long as the prayers do not create a pattern of proselytizing or disparagement of other religions.

This suggests an important shift. A major theme (among others) in the Court’s recent public religious display cases–cases involving creches and the like–is that government displays must be nonsectarian. Religious displays that suggest a preference for one religion over another are unconstitutional. In the context of legislative prayer, however, the Court now seems to be moving away from that principle. Of course, the Court may continue to insist on nonsectarianism outside the legislative prayer context; future cases will tell. But the Court’s willingness to allow sectarian religious expression in this case is a development worth watching.

Second, the Court’s opinion gives a great deal of deference to local governments. The town’s employees could have taken additional steps to make sure the clergy they invited were not so overwhelmingly Christian. Instead of relying on a community guide listing places of worship within the town–all of which were Christian–they could have expanded their search to the surrounding area. For example, many Jewish residents of Greece worshiped at synagogues across the town line in Rochester. If the employees had done a little more research, they would have known this, and they could easily have asked the rabbis from those synagogues to participate.

The Court was not willing to require any more from the town, however. In fact, in his concurrence, Justice Alito argued that it wouldn’t be fair to require more, since “the informal, imprecise way in which the town lined up guest chaplains is typical of the way in which things are done in small and medium-sized units of local government.” To require more could dissuade “local officials, puzzled by our often puzzling Establishment Clause jurisprudence and terrified of the legal fees that may result from a lawsuit claiming a constitutional violation,” from allowing legislative prayer at all.

The deference the Court showed the Town of Greece is significant, I believe. Steve Smith has written about the desirability of local solutions in Establishment Clause cases. The Court seems to be endorsing localism in this case. Towns are not required to have legislative prayer, of course. But those many towns that do wish to start their meetings with prayer–even exclusively Christian prayer–will now be able to do so, as long as they show that they made reasonable efforts to be inclusive. And if the only places of worship in town are Christian, then it’s reasonable for the town to have only Christian prayers. That’s the upshot of the Court’s decision.

In my law and religion seminar, I tell students that most of our fights about the Establishment Clause boil down to this: What can a religious minority reasonably require of the majority? Or, put differently, how far must the majority go to accommodate the sensibilities of the minority? Here, the Court seems to be saying, if a town is overwhelmingly Christian, non-Christians cannot legitimately expect that legislative prayers will be anything but overwhelmingly Christian. To insist on something else would be unreasonable. What about those few citizens who do object to the repeated recitation of Christian prayer at town meetings, who feel genuinely offended? What word does the Court have for them? Well, there are other towns.

The Return of the Jurisprudence of Tradition: 10 Points on the Kennedy Opinion in Town of Greece

Having read the decision, I thought I’d write up three separate posts on Town of Greece v. Galloway. This first post discusses Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court. The next one will talk about Justice Kagan’s dissent and Justice Alito’s concurrence. The final post will discuss Justice Thomas’s concurrence (joined in part by Justice Scalia).

Here are 10 points on Justice Kennedy’s opinion. The opinion was joined in full by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. It was joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas except as to Part II(B).

1. By far the most prominent theme in Justice Kennedy’s opinion is the role of tradition and historical practice in validating the practice of legislative prayer. That point is repeated no less than six or seven times in all kinds of contexts. The practice is “part of our expressive idiom” and our “heritage.” Justice Kennedy writes that “Marsh is sometimes described as “carving out an exception” to the Court’s Establishment Clause’s jurisprudence,” inasmuch as no “tests” were applied in Marsh, but in reality, “[t]he Court in Marsh found those tests unnecessary because history supported the conclusion that legislative invocations are compatible with the Establishment Clause” That’s important. It indicates that the mode of analysis in Marsh was not a carve-out, so much as the place where all Establishment Clause analysis begins, and, under certain circumstances, where it ends.

2. Note the emphasis on both history and particularism in the following: “Marsh stands for the proposition that it is not necessary to define the precise boundary of the Establishment Clause where history shows that the specific practice is permitted….A test that would sweep away what has so long been settled would create new controversy and begin anew the very divisions along religious lines that the Establishment Clause seeks to prevent.” Very interesting. The claim seems to be that it is the rigidity of the tests themselves in this area, and their failure to grant a kind of presumptive validity to entrenched social practices and traditions, which itself generates religious division.

3. In keeping with points #1 and #2, neither the Lemon test nor the endorsement test figure in Kennedy’s analysis at all. There is only a whisper of endorsement in Kennedy’s claim in Part II(B) (which JJ. Scalia and Thomas did not join) where he writes that “[i]t is presumed that the reasonable observer is acquainted with this tradition and understands that its purposes are to lend gravity to public proceedings and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens, not to afford government an opportunity to proselytize or force truant constituents into the pews.” That certainly doesn’t mean that these tests are dead. They just are largely MIA.

4. Framing: Everybody–Justice Kennedy, Justice Kagan in dissent (of which more soon), and the parties–seems to have accepted the following framing by the Court: “The Court’s inquiry, then, must be to determine whether the prayer practice in the town of Greece fits within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures.” No member of the Court resisted this framing or opined that this was an inappropriate or wrong-headed sort of inquiry.

5. “Sectarian” prayers: “An insistence on nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer outlined in the Court’s cases.” The Court here disavows the claim that only nonsectarian prayers are within Marsh’s compass. Again the basis for the claim is in part historical: “The decidedly Christian nature of these prayers must not be dismissed as the relic of a time when our Nation was less pluralistic than it is today.” The growing diversity of the country embraces a kind of deep substantive pluralism as well. The County of Allegheny dictum characterizing Marsh as it did–relying, that is, on the fact that the chaplain in Marsh “removed all references to Christ”–is also repudiated by the Court. Kennedy writes: “Marsh nowhere suggested that the constitutionality of legislative prayer turns on the neutrality of its content.”

6. Entanglement and majoritarianism in supervision: Kennedy further remarks that requiring the Court to supervise the content of prayers would demand government over-involvement in religious matters. The cite here is to Hosanna-Tabor, not to Lemon. It would also inevitably result in majoritarian favoritism, as courts would demand words acceptable only to a majority, the effect of which would be to exclude a minority.

7. Limits: the limits on the acceptability of legislative prayer seemed to be those which “over time…denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion.” Also, where “many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort.”

8. Note the words “over time” in the previous statement. Although plaintiffs presented some evidence that two of the prayer practice occasions did not serve the traditional functions of legislative prayer as formulated by the Court, these two occasions “do not despoil a practice that on the whole reflects and embraces our tradition. Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation.” That is quite a different test than any that existed before. Moreover, the fact that nearly all of the congregations in town are Christian and therefore are substantially represented–or over-represented–in the legislative prayer practice does not itself render the practice unconstitutional: “So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.”

9. On the claim that this case could be distinguished from Marsh on the ground that civilians are coerced to participate, the plurality says that the principal purpose of legislative prayer “is largely to accommodate the spiritual needs of lawmakers and to connect them to a tradition dating to the time of the Framers….The analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity.”

10. Finally, Lee v. Weisman, which Justice Kennedy authored, is distinguished on the ground that nobody is dissuaded from leaving the meeting room during a prayer, arriving late, or making a later protest. Such activities occur regularly and pass without notice. Quiet acquiescence, in this context as compared with the school context, “does not suggest agreement with the ideas and words expressed.”

Supreme Court Reaffirms the Constitutionality of Legislative Prayer

The Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the Town of Greece in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case involving the constitutionality of the practice of legislative prayer. The decision is here.

I will have more comments on this important decision after having read it through. Suffice it to say for now that the language and jurisprudence of tradition figures extremely prominently in both Justice Kennedy’s plurality opinion and in Justice Kagan’s main dissent.

The Weekly Five

This week’s collection includes Benjamin Berger on the modest but useful role of law in mediating religious controversies; Cole Durham and others on same-sex marriage across the globe; Kenneth Lasson on food regulation; Ronan McCrea on face veils in Europe; and Eric Segall on legislative prayer.

1. Benjamin L. Berger (Osgoode Hall), The Virtues of Law in the Politics of Religious Freedom. Berger finds a role for law in mediating the politics of religious freedom. Unlike politics or religion, he says, law does not make comprehensive moral and empirical claims. Law’s goals are much more modest. As a result, law can bracket ultimate truth claims and reach workable compromises in religiously pluralist societies. He offers two examples, a Canadian case on the question whether a witness may give testimony wearing an Islamic niqab and an Israeli case about gender segregation on public buses.

2. W. Cole Durham (BYU) et al., A Comparative Analysis of Laws Pertaining to Same-Sex Unions. The authors survey marriage laws across the globe and report that only a relatively small number allow same-sex marriage. Most states that have decided to allow same-sex marriage have done so through the legislative rather than the judicial process. The authors maintain the legislative route is preferable for a variety of reasons and point out that “with very few exceptions, national and supranational courts have held that such decisions must be left to democratic action by citizens or their legislative representatives.”

3. Kenneth Lasson (University of Baltimore), Sacred Cows, Holy Wars: Exploring the Limits of Law in the Regulation of Raw Milk and Kosher Meat. The author discusses constitutional issues raised by food regulations that implicate religious practices, “especially when regulatory schemes bring into play both consumer protection of the public and recognition of individual rights.”

4. Ronan McCrea (University College London), The Ban on the Veil and European Law. McCrea argues that “offensiveness,” alone, will not justify bans on the public wearing of face veils under European human rights law. However, he maintains, “a ban that applies to public face-covering in general (rather than a ban that only targets the veil), that relates to the specific (though admittedly broad) context of social life and that provides some exceptions allowing the veil to be worn in specific religious or expressive contexts, has a reasonable chance of being upheld by European courts despite the significant infringement of personal autonomy it would involve.”

5. Eric Segall (Georgia State), Silence is Golden: Moments of Silence, Legislative Prayers, and the Establishment Clause. This comment on Town of Greece v. Galloway argues that the best solution to the controversy over legislative prayer is to forbid such prayer in favor of a moment of silence. This solution, Segall argues, “would solemnize governmental hearings and allow people with business there to pray or not pray, without causing offense to, or even in some circumstances coercing, people who do not wish to engage in a religious exercise.”

A Column on Legislative Prayer

I have a short column up at Commonweal on Town of Greece v. Galloway (which the Supreme Court is now considering) and the general question of the constitutionality of legislative prayer.

“Prayer is serious business”

With Thanksgiving weekend coming to an end, it seems like a good time to share a few words about Town of Greece v. Galloway, the legislative prayer case on which the Supreme Court heard oral argument early last month, on November 6.

I have a special personal interest in this case because I was a law clerk to William J. Brennan, Jr. when the Supreme Court decided Marsh v. Chambers, the case that first upheld the practice of legislative prayer on essentially historical grounds, and worked on Justice Brennan’s dissent.  The dissent argued, compellingly I think, that official legislative prayers violated the Establishment Clause despite their long history in both Congress and state legislatures.  But my favorite passage in the dissent, and the one possibly most relevant to the Town of Greece case, is this:

[L]egislative prayer, unlike mottos with fixed wordings, can easily turn narrowly and obviously sectarian.  I agree with the Court that the federal judiciary should not sit as a board of censors on individual prayers, but, to my mind, the better way of avoiding that task is by striking down all official legislative invocations.

More fundamentally, however, any practice of legislative prayer, even if it might look “nonsectarian” to nine Justices of the Supreme Court, will inevitably and continuously involve the State in one or another religious debate.  Prayer is serious business — serious theological business — and it is not a mere “acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country” for the State to immerse itself in that business. Continue reading

CLR Podcast on Town of Greece v. Galloway

Mark and I have recorded a podcast discussing Town of Greece v. Galloway, the legislative prayer case just argued at the Supreme Court, in the Center’s first in a planned series of podcasts on law and religion cases and issues.

We tried to be fairly complete in our discussion of the case, and I think this podcast is particularly useful for students and others interested in an introduction to the issue of legislative prayer and in some fairly detailed analysis of and commentary about the oral argument.

Garnett on the Legislative Prayer Case

My friend Rick Garnett has an extremely sensible post about the legislative prayer case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, which will be heard this term by the Supreme Court. A bit from Rick’s analysis:

[J]udges evaluate, and sometimes disallow, policies that majorities considered, argued about, and embraced.  Because, again, majority rule is the usual way we go about political decisionmaking, this evaluation and – especially! – disallowing is a big deal, and it’s important that the work of judicial review be done right.  Whether or not it is depends, I suggest, on (at least) three related variables:  First, identifying, as correctly as possible, the judicially enforceable meaning of the constitutional text in question; secondthe prudent design and development of workable doctrines that courts can use to decide real-world cases; and third, affording the appropriate deference, if any, to those actors whose decisions are being reviewed and who, presumably, decided that those decisions were constitutionally sound . . . .

[T]he Court can aspire to do well with respect to…doctrine and deference.  The court of appeals, its opinion states, saw “no test-related substitute for the exercise of legal judgment” and it characterized the case as a “fact-intensive” one “which def[ies] exact legal formulas[.]”  In the end, though, it couched its decision in “endorsement test” terms, and reported that “several considerations, including the prayer-giver selection process, the content of the prayers, and the contextual actions (and inactions) of prayer-givers and town officials,” supported the conclusion that “the town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint.”  But neither throwing aside doctrines and tests in favor of “legal judgment” nor engaging in unstructured speculation, however “contextual,” regarding imagined reactions, impressions, and beliefs that “can give only limited guidance to municipalities that wish to maintain a legislative prayer practice” is a sensible or appropriately deferential way for a reviewing court to play its role.  A relatively clear, historically rooted standard, the tool employed in the Marsh case, works better, and is the more consistent justification for judicial review.

Of course, not all permissible practices are best practices or even good ideas.  Even if the court of appeals reached the wrong conclusion, in an unsatisfying way, about what the Constitution allows, its suggestion to towns that they “pause and think carefully before adopting legislative prayer” is sound advice.  Although it is true that many of us – and, in many places, most of us – believe that it is both appropriate and right to seek God’s help with the important business of living together and well in political communities, it is also true that ours is a religiously pluralist society that is becoming more so.  In such a society, as the American Jesuit scholar, John Courtney Murray, wrote, “[men and women] of all religions and of no religions must live together in conditions of justice, peace, and civic friendship.”  The line that separates policies that build up this friendship from those that tear it down is important, even if judicial review is not always the best way to find it.

Rick’s post is part of an on-line symposium at SCOTUSblog discussing various features of the case; the other posts may be found here.

For what it’s worth, I think the most interesting thing about the case does not concern legislative prayer itself, but the fate of the endorsement test, though this is not an issue that the Court would need to reach if it finds itself in a minimalist mood.

Certiorari Granted in Legislative Prayer Case

The Supreme Court has granted cert. in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case out of New York in which the Second Circuit held in an opinion by Judge Guido Calabresi that the town’s practice of allowing volunteer private citizens to open town board meetings with a prayer violated the Establishment Clause. The last Supreme Court decision to address this precise issue was Marsh v. Chambers (1983), where the Court in a majority decision by Chief Justice Burger upheld the particular practice at issue in Nebraska. Courts of appeals have taken different approaches to the issue post-Marsh, even within the same circuit (see, e.g., the Fourth Circuit’s very different approaches in Joyner v. Forsyth CountyWynne v. Town of Great Falls, and Simpson v. Chesterfield County) so I suppose it was on the Court’s radar. But one never knows exactly why the Court decides to take up an issue.

For some discussion of the Second Circuit decision, see this post.

UPDATE: Interesting early posts on the case by Eugene Volokh and Paul Horwitz.

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