WASHINGTON - Freedom of religion is among the rights that Americans cherish most. The First Amendment guarantees it. But is there a place for prayer at public meetings?
On Monday, the Supreme Court - in a 5-4 decision, backed by the conservative majority - said yes.
The justices emphasized the long history and tradition of prayer before legislative sessions, going back 200 years to the nation's founding.
They compared it to the Pledge of Allegiance or inaugural prayer, designed "to lend gravity to public proceedings ... not to avoid government an opportunity to proselytize."
The court rejected arguments by Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, who sued the town of Greece for having invocations - typically, but not always, by Christian ministers - at the beginning of council meetings.
"We do not need prayers in government meetings," Stephens said. "You shouldn't be required to stand up and bow your head and pray to Jesus."
But in the opinion, by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court said the prayers also invoked "universal themes" seeking wisdom and cooperation and that local officials had made a reasonable effort to include ministers of other faiths.
"That nearly all of the congregations in town turned out to be Christian," Kennedy wrote, "does not reflect an aversion or bias on the part of town leaders against minority faiths."
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the court's four liberal justices, sharply disagreed, saying the court was "allowing the town of Greece to turn its assemblies for citizens into a forum for Christian prayer."
Kagan said the town could have asked Christian ministers to offer more generic prayers or included wider array of religious faiths.
"When one month a clergy member refers to Jesus, and the next to Allah or Jehovah, the government does not identify itself with one religion," she wrote.
But despite some of that language in the dissent, Monday's decision is narrow. It will not affect other forms of religious expression such as holiday displays on government property or the "In God We Trust" motto on U.S. currency. It is focused solely on prayer before government meetings.
The court specifically said it did not apply to prayers at, for instance, a school graduation ceremony. The court has ruled those prayers violate the Constitution because children are much more susceptible to government indoctrination and pressure than adults in a town meeting.