The latest Supreme Court ruling on church-state separation is a victory for a town council in New York state that regularly opens its meetings with prayers.
The court, in a 5-to-4 ruling today, said those prayers don't violate the Constitution -- even if they routinely emphasize Christianity -- as long as there's no effort to proselytize or to denigrate non-Christians. Justice Anthony Kennedy said the prayers are ceremonial, and in keeping with the nation's traditions. He wrote that they are designed to "acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent," and not to "exclude or coerce nonbelievers."
The ruling was consistent with one from 1983, when the court upheld an opening prayer in the Nebraska legislature and said prayer is part of the nation's fabric, not a violation of the First Amendment.
The Obama administration had sided with the town of Greece -- where nearly every council meeting over an 11-year span opened with prayers that stressed Christianity. The town has few non-Christian places of worship.
But in a dissent, the court's four liberal justices wrote that the prayers violate the "norm of religious equality." Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the case is different from the one involving the Nebraska legislature -- because the town meetings "involve participation by ordinary citizens," and because the prayers were mostly sectarian.