Written by attorney Alan James Brinkmeier

Constitutional Law: Prayer may be said to open Public Meetings

Over a quarter century ago our U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prayers before government meetings do not violate the constitution. Since then, governing bodies at the national, state and local levels have routinely invited clergy to pray before they conduct public business. In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U. S. 783 (1983) that prayers in state legislatures do not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

That ruling has been interpreted on a continual basis since to permit prayers before government public gatherings, such as city council meetings. So long as there is no imposition of an improper restriction on the type of prayer that can be made to open the session (e.g. cannot just limit the allowed prayers to be Judeo-Christian) the council meetings can be opened by a prayer. The ACLU, usually viewed as a national organization advocating individual rights, filed and won a lawsuit earlier this decade on this very topic. See, Simpson v. Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, (November 13, 2003).

The case was filed to protect the right of the Wicca religion (a religion influenced by pre-Christian beliefs and practices of western Europe that affirms the existence of supernatural power (as magic) and of both male and female deities who inhere in nature and that emphasizes ritual observance of seasonal and life cycles, Source Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010. Merriam-Webster Online. (3 October 2010) to be included as a prayer that must be included in the religions involved in a opening prayer program of the Chesterfield County Board in Virginia.

Simpson, a Wiccan priestess, sought and was denied permission to open a board meeting with a prayer. Her suit to be included prevailed, as the court ruled the limitation of prayer to only Judeo-Christian prayer violated the Establishment Clause. So, if a religion is excluded then the government can be brought to answer in a lawsuit why it has a prayer policy that excludes various religions from participating. But it is not unconstitutional to have prayer to open a city council meeting.

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