The “Gravity” Of Prayer

May 16th, 2014

In reading Town of Greece v. Galloway, there was a key distinction between how the majority opinion by Justice Kennedy, and the dissenting opinion by Justice Kagan, speak of prayer. The former takes several occasions to highlight the value of prayer as lending “gravity” to the lawmaking process. The latter, seemingly taking a moderate position, says the Constitution does not require a “religion-free zone,” and it should be tolerated. Those are very, very different conceptions of the benefits prayer, that in my mind, are almost outcome determinative. If you think that prayer actually improves legislative deliberations, it becomes much easier to rule in favor of the Town of Greece. If you think that prayer does little-to-nothing to the quality of government, then in a balancing test, it is much easier to rule for Galloway.

Take a look at some of the language the majority uses to describe the nature of the prayer. The court used the word “gravity” several times to signify the importance of prayer, and it’s legitimate governmental function.

  • “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.”
  • As practiced by Congress since the framing of the Constitution, legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and e presses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.
  • 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 law¬ makers 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 nonbelievers 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.
  • Prayer that reflects beliefs specific to only some creeds can still serve to solemnize the occasion
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Contrast these views on prayers with those of Justice Kagan’s, who is willing to tolerate legislative prayer, but does not speak to the value of it, beyond “some warrant from tradition.”

  • And I believe that pluralism and inclusion in a town hall can satisfy the constitutional requirement of neutrality; such a forum need not become a religion-free zone.
  • Where I depart from the majority is in my reply to that question. The town hall here is a kind of hybrid. Greece’s Board indeed has legislative functions, as Congress and state assemblies do—and that means some opening pray­ers are allowed there.
  • None of this means that Greece’s town hall must be religion- or prayer-free. “[W]e are a religious people,” Marsh observed, 463 U. S., at 792, and prayer draws some warrant from tradition in a town hall, as well as in Con­gress or a state legislature

The language used in opinions speaks volumes about first principles.