Town of Greece v. Galloway

Town of Greece v. Galloway

Argued:November 6, 2013

Decided:May 5, 2014


The First Amendment to the Constitution protects the fundamental right of religious freedom: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof....” The first part, the Establishment Clause,prevents the government from giving special preference to any particular religion. The second part, the Free Exercise Clause, prohibits the government from interfering with a person’s practice of his religion, in most instances.

This is a case about whether prayer before a legislative session violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.


Before 1999, the Town of Greece, NY, would open its Town Board meetings with a moment of silence. Beginning in that year, however, the town began to invite local clergy to offer an opening prayer. The prayer is delivered over the Board's public address system. Prayer-leaders have often asked audience members to participate by bowing their heads, standing, or joining in the prayer. The prayer is followed by the town’s normal business, including a public forum and a portion of the meeting where business owners and residents apply for zoning changes or various permits.

The town has no formal policy for inviting prayer-givers, for the content of the prayers, or for any other aspect of its prayer practice. The town says that it would permit any type of invocation and that it has never denied a request to lead a prayer. The town does not publicize these facts to residents, however. Town staffinvites religious leaders to offer the prayers. From 1999 to 2007, all of the clergy members who delivered the opening prayer were Christian. Between 2007 and 2010, four prayers were delivered by non-Christian individuals. Of the invocations that took place from 1999 to 2010, two-thirds included uniquely Christian language (words like “Jesus,” “Christ,” or “Holy Spirit”), and the remaining one-third spoke in more generally theistic terms.

Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens attended numerous Town Board meetings since 1999, and began to complain about the prayer practice in 2007. In 2008, they sued the town for violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.


Did the Town of Greece’s practice of opening board meetings with a prayer violate the First Amendment?


Marsh v. Chambers (1983)

The Nebraska Legislature had a long-standing tradition to open its session with a non-sectarian prayer led by a state-employed chaplain. The Supreme Court ruled that this opening prayer tradition did not violate the Establishment Clause because such prayer has been the official practice of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate since before the First Amendment was ratified. In light of that history, the Court said that Nebraska’s prayer was constitutional as long as it did not proselytize, disparage any religion, or advance any one faith or belief.

Lynch v. Donnelly (1984)

A city in Rhode Island put up a Christmas display. It included a nativity scene, a Santa Claus, reindeer, and candy canes. The Supreme Court decided that this city-sponsored display did not violate the Establishment Clause. They said a government action is invalid if it creates a perception in the mind of a reasonable observer that the government is either endorsing or disapproving of religion. Viewed in the context of the holiday display, they did not believe the nativity scene advocated a particular religious message.

County of Allegheny v. ACLU (1989)

Five years after Lynch, the Supreme Court ruled that a nativity display in a county courthouse was unconstitutional.The nativity scene was displayed alone, and prominently said “Glory to God for the birth of Jesus Christ.”They decided that the nativity display affiliated the government with one specific faith (Christianity). The Court said that “history cannot legitimate practices that demonstrate the government's allegiance to a particular sect or creed.”

Lee v. Weisman (1992)

A middle school invited a Jewish rabbi to deliver a prayer at the graduation ceremony. The prayer referred to “God” and “Lord” in general terms. The Supreme Court ruled that this prayer violated the Establishment Clause. They explained that the government violates the Establishment Clause if it (1) provides direct aid to religion in a way that would tend to establish a state church, or (2) coerces people to support or participate in religion against their will. They believed that students could feel coerced to participate in an officially-sponsored prayer at graduation.

Arguments for the Town of Greece

All fifty States and both Houses of Congress open legislative sessions with prayer. Each session of the Supreme Court opens by asking “God” to “save the United States and this Honorable Court.” The prayers offered in Greece before its Town Board meetings are no different in character than any of these traditional and respected invocations.

The Court held in Marsh v. Chambers that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayers does not violate the Establishment Clause. There is no reason to overturn Marsh and since the activity here is basically identical, this case should be decided the same way.

The town does not discriminate based on religion. The opportunity to open a Town Board meeting with a prayer is open to all residents, not just Christians.Jewish, Baha’i, and Wiccan adherents have all offered opening prayers for the Town Board.

Even though Christian prayer has been dominant in Town Board meetings, this is just a reflection of the demographics of the town of Greece. The town of Greece should not be penalized just because a large percent of its population is Christian.

No one is forced to participate in this prayer. Those not interested can sit quietly, step out of the room, or even arrive after the prayer. There is no coercion here.

Arguments for Galloway

With the exception of four meetings that occurred right after this lawsuit was filed, Town Board meetings in Greece have been led in prayer exclusively by Christian clergy. Often, the clergy would ask the captive audience to recite the Lord’s Prayer in unison. Any reasonable person observing these meetings would conclude that the town was specifically endorsing Christianity and excluding other religions.

The practice of prayer before the Town Board meetings is entirely different from the prayer traditionally delivered before Congress or the state legislatures. In state and federal legislatures, the prayer is directed toward legislators, and members of the public are not present on the floor—they watch from a public gallery.

Citizens attend town meetings not as observers, but as participants. Some must request special Board permission for business licensing or zoning permits. Attendance in these cases is not voluntary, and it is clear to all Board members which attendees participate in the prayer and which do not. This amounts to coercion to participate.

Greece could continue to have opening prayers or invocations just so long as the invocations did not single out one religion to the complete exclusion of others.

This case is different fromMarsh. The prayers given at the Nebraska state legislature were traditional invocations, delivered to the legislators, not the public, and were non-sectarian. They did not use the explicitly Christian language present in the Town of Greece prayers.


In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the town’s prayer practice did not violate the First Amendment. Justice Kennedy wrote the Court’s opinion. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito joined the entire opinion, while Justices Thomas and Scalia agreed with the outcome, but only part of the reasoning. Justices Kagan, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor dissented.


The five justice majority agreed that the prayer fit within a long tradition of prayers in legislatures, which was outlined in Marsh v. Chambers. The five also agreed that the prayer did not coerce the people of Greece; however, they differed on how to define “coercion.”


The United States has a long history of prayer before legislative meetings. The majority determined the prayer in Greece, NY, is consistent with Marsh. The justices said that legislative prayers are not required to be non-sectarian. Requiring only nonsectarian prayers would force the town to act as a supervisor and censor of religious speech. However, there are still limits on prayer. For example, a repeated practice of prayer that degrades non-believers or preaches conversion might not be allowed. The justices emphasized that when courts examine prayer to see if it is appropriate, they must look at the entire pattern of the practice as a whole, not at the content of a single prayer.


The five justice majority all agreed that the town had not coerced residents to participate in the prayer. A three justice plurality—Justice Kennedy, join by the Chief Justice and Justice Alito—said that a reasonable adult observer would understand the tradition of opening important events with a prayer. That reasonable observer would not feel pressured to join or to violate his or her own beliefs by participating. Simply being offended by the prayer does not amount to coercion. They said that, hypothetically, coercion could exist if town board members directed people to participate, singled out those who did not, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by who participated.

Justices Thomas and Scalia did not join this portion of the Court’s opinion. They believed that coercion only occurs when the government forces people to financially support a church, forces people to participate in religious observances, or controls religious doctrine.


The dissenters said that the Town of Greece prayer practice is not like the prayers in Marsh. They said that Greece’s prayer violated the Establishment Clause because: the town meetings involve ordinary citizen participation, the prayer was directed at the citizens, the prayer was primarily sectarian, and the prayer was generally of only one faith. The dissenters thought a reasonable person would feel coerced to participate. They said that people have come to America for centuries to share in religious freedom, and that our Constitution guarantees that no matter how people worship, they still count as full and equal American citizens. The government may not favor or align itself with any particular religion.

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