How Town of Greece v. Galloway Will (and Won’t) Affect Religious Liberty
By Tim Cable
The ACLU works to guarantee that all are free to follow and practice their faith – or no faith at all – without governmental interference.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s May 5 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway is a disappointing step in the opposite direction – but it by no means signals the unification of church and state.
Read the ACLU friend-of-the-court brief in Greece v. Galloway
By holding that the town board of Greece, New York can continue opening its monthly town meetings with an official prayer, the Supreme Court’s decision will likely encourage more governmental bodies to try to insert themselves into matters of faith. But all who seek to do so would do well to understand this decision’s limitations.
This decision does not open the door for government to involve itself however it would like in religion.
The only official prayer deemed constitutional by this decision is one that is spoken at the beginning of a governmental body’s meeting in order to solemnize the occasion and recognize religious leaders in the community. Further, those governmental bodies that open sessions with a prayer must have a long tradition of doing so.
This decision does not allow for official prayer that:
- involves children.
- proselytizes or demeans other beliefs.
- is not open to people of different faiths.
- occurs during the official conduct of a governmental body.
This decision does not cancel the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which requires government to remain neutral when it comes to religion. The Supreme Court has a long history of upholding the Establishment Clause, for instance in ruling that public schools may not subject their students to official prayer.
In 1983, the Court created a narrow exception to this neutrality principle. In Marsh v. Chambers, it ruled that a long tradition of legislative prayer dating back to the First Congress was sufficient reason to allow legislative bodies to open sessions with prayers.
Just as the ACLU opposed the Marsh v. Chambers decision, we oppose Town of Greece v. Galloway. Tradition does not trump constitutional principle. Governmental endorsement of religion is a recipe for conflict that goes against our country’s founding principles.
Our nearly 100 years of experience standing up for the Bill of Rights have taught us that the best way to ensure religious liberty is to keep government out.
In the aftermath of Town of Greece v. Galloway, when governmental bodies attempt to use this decision as a justification to involve themselves more in matters of religion, we will continue to defend the rights of all Americans to believe what they want – without the government stepping in.
Read more about the ACLU of Ohio’s work to defend religious liberty on our Religious Liberties issue page.