Town of Greece v. Galloway,
572 U.S. ___ (2014)

Annotate this Case

NOTICE: This opinion is subject to formal revision before publication in the preliminary print of the United States Reports. Readers are requested to notify the Reporter of Decisions, Supreme Court of the United States, Washington, D. C. 20543, of any typographical or other formal errors, in order that corrections may be made before the preliminary print goes to press.



No. 12–696



on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the second circuit

[May 5, 2014]

     Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II–B.[1]*

     The Court must decide whether the town of Greece, New York, imposes an impermissible establishment of religion by opening its monthly board meetings with a prayer. It must be concluded, consistent with the Court’s opinion in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U. S. 783 (1983) , that no violation of the Constitution has been shown.


     Greece, a town with a population of 94,000, is in upstate New York. For some years, it began its monthly town board meetings with a moment of silence. In 1999, the newly elected town supervisor, John Auberger, decided to replicate the prayer practice he had found meaningful while serving in the county legislature. Following the roll call and recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, Auberger would invite a local clergyman to the front of the room to deliver an invocation. After the prayer, Auberger would thank the minister for serving as the board’s “chaplain for the month” and present him with a commemorative plaque. The prayer was intended to place town board members in a solemn and deliberative frame of mind, invoke divine guidance in town affairs, and follow a tradition practiced by Congress and dozens of state legislatures. App. 22a–25a.

     The town followed an informal method for selecting prayer givers, all of whom were unpaid volunteers. A town employee would call the congregations listed in a local directory until she found a minister available for that month’s meeting. The town eventually compiled a list of willing “board chaplains” who had accepted invitations and agreed to return in the future. The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation. But nearly all of the congregations in town were Christian; and from 1999 to 2007, all of the participating ministers were too.

     Greece neither reviewed the prayers in advance of the meetings nor provided guidance as to their tone or content, in the belief that exercising any degree of control over the prayers would infringe both the free exercise and speech rights of the ministers. Id., at 22a. The town instead left the guest clergy free to compose their own devotions. The resulting prayers often sounded both civic and religious themes. Typical were invocations that asked the divinity to abide at the meeting and bestow blessings on the community:

“Lord we ask you to send your spirit of servanthood upon all of us gathered here this evening to do your work for the benefit of all in our community. We ask you to bless our elected and appointed officials so they may deliberate with wisdom and act with courage. Bless the members of our community who come here to speak before the board so they may state their cause with honesty and humility. . . . Lord we ask you to bless us all, that everything we do here tonight will move you to welcome us one day into your kingdom as good and faithful servants. We ask this in the name of our brother Jesus. Amen.” Id., at 45a.

Some of the ministers spoke in a distinctly Christian idiom; and a minority invoked religious holidays, scripture, or doctrine, as in the following prayer:

“Lord, God of all creation, we give you thanks and praise for your presence and action in the world. We look with anticipation to the celebration of Holy Week and Easter. It is in the solemn events of next week that we find the very heart and center of our Christian faith. We acknowledge the saving sacrifice ofJesus Christ on the cross. We draw strength, vitality, and confidence from his resurrection at Easter. . . . We pray for peace in the world, an end to terrorism, violence, conflict, and war. We pray for stability, democracy, and good government in those countries in which our armed forces are now serving, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. . . . Praise and glory be yours, O Lord, now and forever more. Amen.” Id., at 88a–89a.

     Respondents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens attended town board meetings to speak about issues of local concern, and they objected that the prayers violated their religious or philosophical views. At one meeting, Galloway admonished board members that she foundthe prayers “offensive,” “intolerable,” and an affront to a “diverse community.” Complaint in No. 08–cv–6088 (WDNY), ¶66. After respondents complained that Christian themes pervaded the prayers, to the exclusion of citizens who did not share those beliefs, the town invited a Jewish layman and the chairman of the local Baha’i temple to deliver prayers. A Wiccan priestess who had read press reports about the prayer controversy requested, and was granted, an opportunity to give the invocation.

     Galloway and Stephens brought suit in the United States District Court for the Western District of New York. They alleged that the town violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by preferring Christians over other prayer givers and by sponsoring sectarian prayers, such as those given “in Jesus’ name.” 732 F. Supp. 2d 195, 203 (2010). They did not seek an end to the prayer practice, but rather requested an injunction that would limit the town to “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers that referred only to a “generic God” and would not associate the government with any one faith or belief. Id., at 210, 241.

     The District Court on summary judgment upheld the prayer practice as consistent with the First Amendment. It found no impermissible preference for Christianity, noting that the town had opened the prayer program to all creeds and excluded none. Although most of the prayer givers were Christian, this fact reflected only the predominantly Christian identity of the town’s congregations, rather than an official policy or practice of discriminating against minority faiths. The District Court found no authority for the proposition that the First Amendment required Greece to invite clergy from congregations beyond its borders in order to achieve a minimum level of religious diversity.

     The District Court also rejected the theory that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian. The court began its inquiry with the opinion in Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U. S. 783 , which permitted prayer in state legislatures by a chaplain paid from the public purse, so long as the prayer opportunity was not “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief,” id., at 794–795. With respect to the prayer in Greece, the District Court concluded that references to Jesus, and the occasional request that the audience stand for the prayer, did not amount to impermissible proselytizing. It located in Marsh no additional requirement that the prayers be purged of sectarian content. In this regard the court quoted recent invocations offered in the U. S. House of Representatives “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ,” e.g., 156 Cong Rec. H5205 (June 30, 2010), and situated prayer in this context as part a long tradition. Finally, the trial court noted this Court’s statement in County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U. S. 573, 603 (1989) , that the prayers in Marsh did not offend the Establishment Clause “because the particular chaplain had ‘removed all references to Christ.’ ” But the District Court did not read that statement to mandate that legislative prayer be nonsectarian, at least in circumstances where the town permitted clergy from a variety of faiths to give invocations. By welcoming many viewpoints, the District Court concluded, the town would be unlikely to give the impression that it was affiliating itself with any one religion.

     The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed. 681 F. 3d 20, 34 (2012). It held that some aspects of the prayer program, viewed in their totality by a reasonable observer, conveyed the message that Greece was endorsing Christianity. The town’s failure to promote the prayer opportunity to the public, or to invite ministers from congregations outside the town limits, all but “ensured a Christian viewpoint.” Id., at 30–31. Although the court found no inherent problem in the sectarian content of the prayers, it concluded that the “steady drumbeat” of Christian prayer, unbroken by invocations from other faith traditions, tended to affiliate the town with Christianity. Id., at 32. Finally, the court found it relevant that guest clergy sometimes spoke on behalf of all present at the meeting, as by saying “let us pray,” or by asking audience members to stand and bow their heads: “The invitation . . . to participate in the prayer . . . placed audience members who are nonreligious or adherents of non-Christian religion in the awkward position of either participating in prayers invoking beliefs they did not share or appearing to show disrespect for the invocation.” Ibid. That board members bowed their heads or made the sign of the cross further conveyed the message that the town endorsed Christianity. The Court of Appeals emphasized that it was the “interaction of the facts present in this case,” rather than any single element, that rendered the prayer unconstitutional. Id., at 33.

     Having granted certiorari to decide whether the town’s prayer practice violates the Establishment Clause, 569 U. S. ___ (2013), the Court now reverses the judgment of the Court of Appeals.


     In Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U. S. 783 , the Court found no First Amendment violation in the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of opening its sessions with a prayer delivered by a chaplain paid from state funds. The decision concluded that legislative prayer, while religious in nature, has long been understood as compatible with the Establishment Clause. As practiced by Congress since the framing of the Constitution, legislative prayer lends grav-ity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful soci-ety. See Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U. S. 668, 693 (1984) (O’Connor, J., concurring); cf. A. Adams & C. Emmerich, A Nation Dedicated to Religious Liberty 83 (1990). The Court has considered this symbolic expression to be a “tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held,” Marsh, 463 U. S., at 792, rather than a first, treacherous step towards establishment of a state church.

     Marsh is sometimes described as “carving out an exception” to the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence, because it sustained legislative prayer without subjecting the practice to “any of the formal ‘tests’ that have traditionally structured” this inquiry. Id., at 796, 813 (Brennan, J., dissenting). The Court in Marsh found those tests unnecessary because history supported the conclusion that legislative invocations are compatible with the Establishment Clause. The First Congress made it an early item of business to appoint and pay official chaplains, and both the House and Senate have maintained the office virtually uninterrupted since that time. See id., at 787–789, and n. 10; N. Feldman, Divided by God 109 (2005). But see Marsh, supra, at 791–792, and n. 12 (noting dissenting views among the Framers); Madison, “Detached Memoranda”, 3 Wm. & Mary Quarterly 534, 558–559 (1946) (hereinafter Madison’s Detached Memoranda). When Marsh was decided, in 1983, legislative prayer had persisted in the Nebraska Legislature for more than a cen-tury, and the majority of the other States also had the same, consistent practice. 463 U. S., at 788–790, and n. 11. Although no information has been cited by the parties to indicate how many local legislative bodies open their meetings with prayer, this practice too has historical precedent. See Reports of Proceedings of the City Council of Boston for the Year Commencing Jan. 1, 1909, and Ending Feb. 5, 1910, pp. 1–2 (1910) (Rev. Arthur Little) (“And now we desire to invoke Thy presence, Thy blessing, and Thy guidance upon those who are gathered here this morning . . .”). “In light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with a prayer has become part of the fabric of our society.” Marsh, supra, at 792.

     Yet Marsh must not be understood as permitting a practice that would amount to a constitutional violation if not for its historical foundation. The case teaches instead that the Establishment Clause must be interpreted “by reference to historical practices and understandings.” County of Allegheny, 492 U. S., at 670 (Kennedy, J., concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part). That the First Congress provided for the appointment of chaplains only days after approving language for the First Amendment demonstrates that the Framers considered legislative prayer a benign acknowledgment of religion’s role in society. D. Currie, The Constitution in Congress: The Federalist Period 1789–1801, pp. 12–13 (1997). In the 1850’s, the judiciary committees in both the House and Senate reevaluated the practice of official chaplaincies after receiving petitions to abolish the office. The committees concluded that the office posed no threat of an establishment because lawmakers were not compelled to attend the daily prayer, S. Rep. No. 376, 32d Cong., 2d Sess., 2 (1853); no faith was excluded by law, nor any favored, id., at 3; and the cost of the chaplain’s salary imposed a vanishingly small burden on taxpayers, H. Rep. No. 124, 33d Cong., 1st Sess., 6 (1854). 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. Any test the Court adopts must acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the Framers and has withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change. County of Allegheny, supra, at 670 (opinion of Kennedy, J.); see also School Dist. of Abington Township v. Schempp, 374 U. S. 203, 294 (1963) (Brennan, J., concurring) (“[T]he line we must draw between the permissible and the impermissible is one which accords with history and faithfully reflects the understanding of the Founding Fathers”). 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. See Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U. S. 677 –704 (2005) (Breyer, J., concurring in judgment).

     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. Respondents assert that the town’s prayer exercise falls outside that tradition and transgresses the Establishment Clause for two independent but mutually reinforcing reasons. First, they argue that Marsh did not approve prayers containing sectarian language or themes, such as the prayers offered in Greece that referred to the “death, resurrection, and ascension of the Savior Jesus Christ,” App. 129a, and the “saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross,” id., at 88a. Second, they argue that the setting and conduct of the town board meetings create social pressures that force nonadherents to remain in the room or even feign participation in order to avoid offending the representatives who sponsor the prayer and will vote on matters citizens bring before the board. The sectarian content of the prayers compounds the subtle coercive pressures, they argue, because the nonbeliever who might tolerate ecumenical prayer is forced to do the same for prayer that might be inimical to his or her beliefs.


     Respondents maintain that prayer must be nonsectarian, or not identifiable with any one religion; and they faultthe town for permitting guest chaplains to deliver prayers that “use overtly Christian terms” or “invoke specifics of Christian theology.” Brief for Respondents 20. A prayer is fitting for the public sphere, in their view, only if it contains the ‘ “most general, nonsectarian reference to God,’ ” id., at 33 (quoting M. Meyerson, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America 11–12 (2012)), and eschews mention of doctrines associated with any one faith, Brief for Respondents 32–33. They argue that prayer which contemplates “the workings of the Holy Spirit, the events of Pentecost, and the belief that God ‘has raisedup the Lord Jesus’ and ‘will raise us, in our turn, and put us by His side’ ” would be impermissible, as would any prayer that reflects dogma particular to a single faith tradition. Id., at 34 (quoting App. 89a and citing id., at 56a, 123a, 134a).

     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 found the prayers in Marsh consistent with the First Amendment not because they espoused only a ge-neric theism but because our history and tradition have shown that prayer in this limited context could “coexis[t] with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.” 463 U. S., at 786. The Congress that drafted the First Amendment would have been accustomed to invocations containing explicitly religious themes of the sort respondents find objectionable. One of the Senate’s first chaplains, the Rev. William White, gave prayers in a series that included the Lord’s Prayer, the Collect forAsh Wednesday, prayers for peace and grace, a general thanksgiving, St. Chrysostom’s Prayer, and a prayer seeking “the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, &c.” Letter from W. White to H. Jones (Dec. 29, 1830), in B. Wilson, Memoir of the Life of the Right Reverend William White, D. D., Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the State of Pennsylvania 322 (1839); see also New Hampshire Patriot & State Gazette, Dec. 15, 1823, p. 1 (describing a Senate prayer addressing the “Throne of Grace”); Cong. Globe, 37th Cong., 1st Sess., 2 (1861) (reciting the Lord’s Prayer). 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. Congress continues to permit its appointed and visiting chaplains to express themselves in a religious idiom. It acknowledges our growing diversity not by proscribing sectarian content but by welcoming ministers of many creeds. See, e.g., 160 Cong. Rec. S1329 (Mar. 6, 2014) (Dalai Lama) (“I am a Buddhist monk—a simple Buddhist monk—so we pray to Buddha and all other Gods”); 159 Cong. Rec. H7006 (Nov. 13, 2013) (Rabbi Joshua Gruenberg) (“Our God and God of our ancestors, Everlasting Spirit of the Universe . . .”); 159 Cong. Rec. H3024 (June 4, 2013) (Satguru Bodhinatha Veylanswami) (“Hindu scripture declares, without equivocation, that the highest of high ideals is to never know-ingly harm anyone”); 158 Cong. Rec. H5633 (Aug. 2, 2012) (Imam Nayyar Imam) (“The final prophet of God, Muhammad, peace be upon him, stated: ‘The leaders of a people are a representation of their deeds’ ”).

     The contention that legislative prayer must be generic or nonsectarian derives from dictum in County of Allegheny, 492 U. S. 573 , that was disputed when written and has been repudiated by later cases. There the Court held that a crèche placed on the steps of a county courthouse to celebrate the Christmas season violated the Establishment Clause because it had “the effect of endorsing a patently Christian message.” Id., at 601. Four dissenting Justices disputed that endorsement could be the proper test, as it likely would condemn a host of traditional practices that recognize the role religion plays in our society, among them legislative prayer and the “forthrightly religious” Thanksgiving proclamations issued by nearly every President since Washington. Id., at 670–671. The Court sought to counter this criticism by recasting Marsh to permit only prayer that contained no overtly Christian references:

“However history may affect the constitutionality of nonsectarian references to religion by the government, history cannot legitimate practices that demonstrate the government’s allegiance to a particular sect or creed . . . . The legislative prayers involved in Marsh did not violate this principle because the particular chaplain had ‘removed all references to Christ.’ ” Id., at 603 (quoting Marsh, supra, at 793, n. 14; footnote omitted).

     This proposition is irreconcilable with the facts of Marsh and with its holding and reasoning. Marsh nowhere suggested that the constitutionality of legislative prayer turns on the neutrality of its content. The opinion noted that Nebraska’s chaplain, the Rev. Robert E. Palmer, modu-lated the “explicitly Christian” nature of his prayer and “removed all references to Christ” after a Jewish law-maker complained. 463 U. S., at 793, n. 14. With this foot-note, the Court did no more than observe the practical demands placed on a minister who holds a permanent, appointed position in a legislature and chooses to write his or her prayers to appeal to more members, or at least to give less offense to those who object. See Mallory, “An Officer of the House Which Chooses Him, and Nothing More”: How Should Marsh v. Chambers Apply to Rotating Chaplains?, 73 U. Chi. L. Rev. 1421, 1445 (2006). Marsh did not suggest that Nebraska’s prayer practice would have failed had the chaplain not acceded to the legislator’s request. Nor did the Court imply the rule that prayer violates the Establishment Clause any time it is given in the name of a figure deified by only one faith or creed. See Van Orden, 545 U. S., at 688, n. 8 (recognizing that the prayers in Marsh were “often explicitly Christian” and rejecting the view that this gave rise to an establishment violation). To the contrary, the Court instructed that the “content of the prayer is not of concern to judges,” provided “there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” 463 U. S., at 794–795.

     To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact. Cf. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U. S. ___, ___ (2012) (slip op., at 13–14). Our Government is prohibited from prescribing prayers to be recited in our public institutions in order to promote a preferred system of belief or code of moral behavior. Engel v. Vitale, 370 U. S. 421, 430 (1962) . It would be but a few steps removed from that prohibition for legislatures to require chaplains to redact the religious content from their message in order to make it acceptable for the public sphere. Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy. See Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577, 590 (1992) (“The suggestion that government may establish an official or civic religion as a means of avoiding the establishment of a religion with more specific creeds strikes us as a contradiction that cannot be ac-cepted”); Schempp, 374 U. S., at 306 (Goldberg, J., concurring) (arguing that “untutored devotion to the concept of neutrality” must not lead to “a brooding and pervasive devotion to the secular”).

     Respondents argue, in effect, that legislative prayer may be addressed only to a generic God. The law and the Court could not draw this line for each specific prayer or seek to require ministers to set aside their nuanced and deeply personal beliefs for vague and artificial ones. There is doubt, in any event, that consensus might be reached as to what qualifies as generic or nonsectarian. Honorifics like “Lord of Lords” or “King of Kings” might strike a Christian audience as ecumenical, yet these titles may have no place in the vocabulary of other faith tradi-tions. The difficulty, indeed the futility, of sifting sectarian from nonsectarian speech is illustrated by a letter thata lawyer for the respondents sent the town in the early stages of this litigation. The letter opined that references to “Father, God, Lord God, and the Almighty” would be acceptable in public prayer, but that references to “Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Trinity” would not. App. 21a. Perhaps the writer believed the former grouping would be acceptable to monotheists. Yet even seemingly general references to God or the Father might alienate nonbelievers or polytheists. McCreary County v. American Civil Liberties Union of Ky., 545 U. S. 844, 893 (2005) (Scalia, J., dissenting). Because it is unlikely that prayer will be inclusive beyond dispute, it would be unwise to adopt what respondents think is the next-best option: permitting those religious words, and only those words, that are acceptable to the majority, even if they will exclude some. Torcaso v. Watkins, 367 U. S. 488, 495 (1961) . The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech. Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian.

     In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no constraints remain on its content. The relevant constraint derives from its place at the opening of legislative sessions, where it is meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage. Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function. If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbeliev-ers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, 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. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.

     The tradition reflected in Marsh permits chaplains to ask their own God for blessings of peace, justice, and freedom that find appreciation among people of all faiths. That a prayer is given in the name of Jesus, Allah, or Jehovah, or that it makes passing reference to religious doctrines, does not remove it from that tradition. These religious themes provide particular means to universal ends. Prayer that reflects beliefs specific to only some creeds can still serve to solemnize the occasion, so long as the practice over time is not “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” Marsh, 463 U. S., at 794–795.

     It is thus possible to discern in the prayers offered to Congress a commonality of theme and tone. While these prayers vary in their degree of religiosity, they often seek peace for the Nation, wisdom for its lawmakers, and justice for its people, values that count as universal and that are embodied not only in religious traditions, but in our founding documents and laws. The first prayer delivered to the Continental Congress by the Rev. Jacob Duché on Sept. 7, 1774, provides an example:

     “Be Thou present O God of Wisdom and direct the counsel of this Honorable Assembly; enable them to settle all things on the best and surest foundations; that the scene of blood may be speedily closed; that Order, Harmony, and Peace be effectually restored, and the Truth and Justice, Religion and Piety, prevail and flourish among the people.

     “Preserve the health of their bodies, and the vigor of their minds, shower down on them, and the millions they here represent, such temporal Blessings as Thou seest expedient for them in this world, and crown them with everlasting Glory in the world to come. All this we ask in the name and through the merits ofJesus Christ, Thy Son and our Saviour, Amen.” W. Federer, America’s God and Country 137 (2000).

     From the earliest days of the Nation, these invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds. These ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion. Even those who dis-agree as to religious doctrine may find common ground in the desire to show respect for the divine in all aspects of their lives and being. Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith. See Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams (Sept. 16, 1774), in C. Adams, Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams, During the Revolution 37–38 (1876).

     The prayers delivered in the town of Greece do not fall outside the tradition this Court has recognized. A number of the prayers did invoke the name of Jesus, the Heavenly Father, or the Holy Spirit, but they also invoked universal themes, as by celebrating the changing of the seasons or calling for a “spirit of cooperation” among town leaders. App. 31a, 38a. Among numerous examples of such prayer in the record is the invocation given by the Rev. Richard Barbour at the September 2006 board meeting:

“Gracious God, you have richly blessed our nationand this community. Help us to remember your generosity and give thanks for your goodness. Bless the elected leaders of the Greece Town Board as they conduct the business of our town this evening. Give them wisdom, courage, discernment and a single-minded desire to serve the common good. We ask your blessing on all public servants, and especially on our police force, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel. . . . Respectful of every religious tradition, I offer this prayer in the name of God’s only son Jesus Christ, the Lord, Amen.” Id., at 98a–99a.

     Respondents point to other invocations that disparaged those who did not accept the town’s prayer practice. One guest minister characterized objectors as a “minority” who are “ignorant of the history of our country,” id., at 108a, while another lamented that other towns did not have “God-fearing” leaders, id., at 79a. Although these two remarks strayed from the rationale set out in Marsh, they 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. Marsh, indeed, requires an inquiry into the prayer opportunity as a whole, rather than into the contents of a single prayer. 463 U. S., at 794–795.

     Finally, the Court disagrees with the view taken by the Court of Appeals that the town of Greece contravened the Establishment Clause by inviting a predominantly Christian set of ministers to lead the prayer. The town made reasonable efforts to identify all of the congregations located within its borders and represented that it would welcome a prayer by any minister or layman who wished to give one. That nearly all of the congregations in town turned out to be Christian does not reflect an aversion or bias on the part of town leaders against minority faiths. 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. The quest to promote “a ‘diversity’ of religious views” would require the town “to make wholly inappropriate judgments about the number of religions [it] should sponsor and the relative frequency with which it should sponsor each,” Lee, 505 U. S., at 617 (Souter, J., concurring), a form of government entanglement with religion that is far more troublesome than the current approach.


     Respondents further seek to distinguish the town’s prayer practice from the tradition upheld in Marsh on the ground that it coerces participation by nonadherents. They and some amici contend that prayer conducted in the intimate setting of a town board meeting differs in fundamental ways from the invocations delivered in Congress and state legislatures, where the public remains segregated from legislative activity and may not address the body except by occasional invitation. Citizens attend town meetings, on the other hand, to accept awards; speak on matters of local importance; and petition the board for action that may affect their economic interests, such as the granting of permits, business licenses, and zoning variances. Respondents argue that the public may feel subtle pressure to participate in prayers that violate their beliefs in order to please the board members from whom they are about to seek a favorable ruling. In their view the fact that board members in small towns know many of their constituents by name only increases the pressure to conform.

     It is an elemental First Amendment principle that government may not coerce its citizens “to support or participate in any religion or its exercise.” County of Allegheny, 492 U. S., at 659 (Kennedy, J., concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part); see also Van Orden, 545 U. S., at 683 (plurality opinion) (recognizing that our “institutions must not press religious observances upon their citizens”). On the record in this case the Court is not persuaded that the town of Greece, through the act of offering a brief, solemn, and respectful prayer to open its monthly meetings, compelled its citizens to engage in a religious observance. The inquiry remains a fact-sensitive one that considers both the setting in which the prayer arises and the audience to whom it is directed.

     The prayer opportunity in this case must be evaluated against the backdrop of historical practice. As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of “God save the United States and this honorable Court” at the opening of this Court’s sessions. See Lynch, 465 U. S., at 693 (O’Connor, J., concurring). It 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. See Salazar v. Buono, 559 U. S. 700 –721 (2010) (plurality opinion); Santa Fe Independent School Dist. v. Doe, 530 U. S. 290, 308 (2000) . That many appreciate these acknowledgments of the divine in our public institutions does not suggest that those who disagree are compelled to join the expression or approve its content. West Virginia Bd. of Ed. v. Barnette, 319 U. S. 624, 642 (1943) .

     The principal audience for these invocations is not, indeed, the public but lawmakers themselves, who may find that a moment of prayer or quiet reflection sets the mind to a higher purpose and thereby eases the task of governing. The District Court in Marsh described the prayer exercise as “an internal act” directed at the Nebraska Legislature’s “own members,” Chambers v. Marsh, 504 F. Supp. 585, 588 (Neb. 1980), rather than an effort to promote religious observance among the public. See also Lee, 505 U. S., at 630, n. 8 (Souter, J., concurring) (describing Marsh as a case “in which government officials invoke[d] spiritual inspiration entirely for their own benefit”); Atheists of Fla., Inc. v. Lakeland, 713 F. 3d 577, 583 (CA11 2013) (quoting a city resolution providing for prayer “for the benefit and blessing of” elected leaders); Madison’s Detached Memoranda 558 (characterizing prayer in Congress as “religious worship for national representatives”); Brief for U. S. Senator Marco Rubio et al. as Amici Curiae 30–33; Brief for 12 Members of Congress as Amici Curiae 6. To be sure, many members of the public find these prayers meaningful and wish to join them. But their purpose is largely to accommodate the spiritual needs of lawmakers and connect them to a tradition dating to the time of the Framers. For members of town boards and commissions, who often serve part-time and as volunteers, ceremonial prayer may also reflect the values they hold as private citizens. The prayer is an opportunity for them to show who and what they are without denying the right to dissent by those who disagree.

     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. No such thing occurred in the town of Greece. Although board members themselves stood, bowed their heads, or made the sign of the cross during the prayer, they at no point solicited similar gestures by the public. Respondents point to several occasions where audience members were asked to rise for the prayer. These requests, however, came not from town leaders but from the guest ministers, who presumably are accustomed to directing their congregations in this way and might have done so thinking the action was inclusive, not coercive. See App. 69a (“Would you bow your heads with me as we invite the Lord’s presence here tonight?”); id., at 93a (“Let us join our hearts and minds together in prayer”); id., at 102a (“Would you join me in a moment of prayer?”); id., at 110a (“Those who are willing may join me now in prayer”). Respondents suggest that constituents might feel pressure to join the prayers to avoid irritating the officials who would be ruling on their petitions, but this argument has no evidentiary support. Nothing in the record indicates that town leaders allocated benefits and burdens based on participation in the prayer, or that citizens were received differently depending on whether they joined the invocation or quietly declined. In no instance did town leaders signal disfavor toward nonparticipants or suggest that their stature in the community was in any way diminished. A practice that classified citizens based on their religious views would violate the Constitution, but that is not the case before this Court.

     In their declarations in the trial court, respondents stated that the prayers gave them offense and made them feel excluded and disrespected. Offense, however, does not equate to coercion. Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum, especially where, as here, any member of the public is welcome in turn to offer an invocation reflecting his or her own convictions. See Elk Grove Unified School Dist. v. Newdow, 542 U. S. 1, 44 (2004) (O’Connor, J., concurring) (“The compulsion of which Justice Jackson was concerned . . . was of the direct sort—the Constitution does not guarantee citizens a rightentirely to avoid ideas with which they disagree”). If circum-stances arise in which the pattern and practice of ceremonial, legislative prayer is alleged to be a means to coerce or intimidate others, the objection can be addressed in the regular course. But the showing has not been made here, where the prayers neither chastised dissenters nor attempted lengthy disquisition on religious dogma. Courts remain free to review the pattern of prayers over time to determine whether they comport with the tradition of solemn, respectful prayer approved in Marsh, or whether coercion is a real and substantial likelihood. But in the general course legislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate. See County of Allegheny, 492 U. S., at 670 (Kennedy, J., concurring in judgment in part and dissenting in part).

     This case can be distinguished from the conclusions and holding of Lee v. Weisman, 505 U. S. 577 . There the Court found that, in the context of a graduation where school authorities maintained close supervision over the conduct of the students and the substance of the ceremony, a religious invocation was coercive as to an objecting student. Id., at 592–594; see also Santa Fe Independent School Dist., 530 U. S., at 312. Four Justices dissented in Lee, but the circumstances the Court confronted there are not present in this case and do not control its outcome. Nothing in the record suggests that members of the public are dissuaded from leaving the meeting room during the prayer, arriving late, or even, as happened here, making a later protest. In this case, as in Marsh, board members and constituents are “free to enter and leave with little comment and for any number of reasons.” Lee, supra, at 597. Should nonbelievers choose to exit the room during a prayer they find distasteful, their absence will not stand out as disrespectful or even noteworthy. And should they remain, their quiet acquiescence will not, in light of our traditions, be interpreted as an agreement with the words or ideas expressed. Neither choice represents an unconstitutional imposition as to mature adults, who “presumably” are “not readily susceptible to religious indoctrination or peer pressure.” Marsh, 463 U. S., at 792 (internal quotation marks and citations omitted).

     In the town of Greece, the prayer is delivered during the ceremonial portion of the town’s meeting. Board members are not engaged in policymaking at this time, but in more general functions, such as swearing in new police officers, inducting high school athletes into the town hall of fame, and presenting proclamations to volunteers, civic groups, and senior citizens. It is a moment for town leaders to recognize the achievements of their constituents and the aspects of community life that are worth celebrating. By inviting ministers to serve as chaplain for the month, and welcoming them to the front of the room alongside civic leaders, the town is acknowledging the central place that religion, and religious institutions, hold in the lives of those present. Indeed, some congregations are not simply spiritual homes for town residents but also the provider of social services for citizens regardless of their beliefs. See App. 31a (thanking a pastor for his “community involvement”); id., at 44a (thanking a deacon “for the job that you have done on behalf of our community”). The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.

     Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs. The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

*  *  *

     The town of Greece does not violate the First Amendment by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents. The judgment of the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit is reversed.

It is so ordered.


1 *  and join this opinion in full. and join this opinion except as to Part II–B.
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