A landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court today which allows the town of Greece New York to open its city board and council meetings with a Christian prayer should be a boost to people who fight for more symbols of religion in America's public discussion, 1200 WOAI news reports.
"Legislative prayers are permissible," said Katie Anderson, an expert in municipal law with the Texas law firm of Strasburger Price. "And this opinion goes further to state that non-sectarian prayers are not required."
Anderson says the justices essentially added onto a 1983 ruling which approved the opening of sessions of the Nebraska Legislature with prayer. The justices said as long as the government agency does not dictate what they prayer will be, and make a 'good faith effort at inclusion,' largely Christian prayers do not violate the establishment clause of the Constitution.
"The court is very clear that it will very rarely rule on or make a judgment based on the content of a prayer," she said.
The justices said even though the vast majority of prayers offered by the Greece Council are Christian, that does not in of itself indicate that the prayer policy is unconstitutional.
It was a narrow ruling, 5-4, and Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the minority, suggested that the ruling might have gone the other way had it involved a Muslim payer opening a meeting in a predominately Muslim community.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said the prayer is 'ceremonial' in nature.
"The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civil recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers," Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion.
Anderson said the ruling will give hope to people who are fighting for more Christian symbols in public, like manger scenes in parks at Christmas, or the Ten Commandments on the lawn of the Courthouse. Those also can be seen as 'acknowledging the institutions they represent.'
"This provides a lot of good quotes for those arguing to allow religious content and to dissuade the court from judging that content," she said.
A similar argument has been used by people seeking to shut down religious displays in public, that they are coercive against non believers, a claim which now will have less credence due to this ruling.