When he was in the minority in a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court vote in 1989 that banned a creche display at the Allegheny County Courthouse, Justice Anthony Kennedy could do little more than register his dissent in writing.
But a quarter century later -- now writing for a court majority -- Justice Kennedy blew the dust off his words and used them to establish new case law. Local municipal boards, he declared, can invite clergy and other citizens to offer prayers before meetings, even if most or all of those prayers end up reflecting just one religion.
The court ruled, 5-4, on Monday that the town board of Greece, N.Y., was within its constitutional rights to begin its meetings with prayers, even though it went for many years having invited only Christians to lead the prayers. Prayer-givers had invoked specific Christian doctrines, invited all to bow their heads or stand with them in prayer and used terms such as "we" and "our brother the Lord Jesus Christ."
Such circumstances, a lower appeals court had ruled, amounted to a "steady drumbeat" of endorsing Christianity.
But Justice Kennedy said Greece made reasonable efforts to invite clergy and others to pray, consulting a Chamber of Commerce directory that only had church listings in the predominately Christian community. The goal of the prayer, Justice Kennedy said, is to set a tone of gravity before a board does public business -- and it's OK to get doctrinally specific, just not to go negative on others.
"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," Justice Kennedy wrote.
A spot check of various state and local bodies indicates that Pennsylvania legislators and many local boards in southwestern Pennsylvania use moments of silence, prayer-givers of different religions or inclusive prayers -- all of which are permissible under the court ruling and might have been even if the court minority had prevailed. McKeesport appears to come closest to Greece's situation, with a ministerium appointing prayer-givers from a mainly Christian perspective.
Justice Kennedy drew on his own words when he was on the losing side in the 1989 Allegheny County creche case -- when the court ruled the nativity display in the prominent public location amounted to a government endorsement of Christianity. He quoted himself as saying that the court has to recognize that the same early Congress that drafted the First Amendment also began meetings with prayers.
Any criteria for public prayer today "must acknowledge a practice that was accepted by the Framers and has withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change," he said. "... 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."
While the Supreme Court had previously upheld prayers before legislative sessions, there was a dispute over what types of prayers were acceptable, said senior scholar Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, a national group monitoring religious freedom.
"There are going to be people deeply unhappy with this, but the good news is we now at least know some of the ground rules," said Mr. Haynes.
Ira Weiss, solicitor for Pittsburgh Public Schools and many suburban school districts and municipalities, said prayers to open public meetings used to be routine in the 1970s and earlier. He represented Clairton when someone challenged that city council's opening prayer in the 1970s.
Although the city eventually lost, during the process it posted signs throughout the community reading "Clairton: City of Prayer."
"I guess they were ahead of their time," he said.
Mr. Weiss said he disagrees with Monday's decision, but "if that's what the Supreme Court rules, we'll go along with it."
Sara Rose, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said her group does get complaints about sectarian prayers at municipal meetings.
She echoed dissenting Justice Elena Kagan, who said small municipal boards are different than state legislatures, in that citizens show up seeking redress of some sort.
Someone seeking a zoning variance or improved trash pick-up might feel pressured to bow or stand when everyone else is praying in hopes of a better ruling. "Often it's only five or 10 people who show up and it's pretty obvious when someone's deciding not to participate in a prayer," Ms. Rose said.
A spot check of local boards found that Rankin and Wilkins, for example, do not open meetings with prayers, while Ross manager Doug Sample begins board of commissioners meetings with invocations to God as "father," without specific references to Jesus or any faith, mainly asking for wisdom for the board.
McKeesport Mayor Mike Cherepko said he was excited by the Supreme Court ruling.
"When I first got in office, I had some individuals approach me and tell me that I had to stop," he said.
"I told them that the only way I'd stop the prayers was if I was forced to by law. I personally am an individual that prays very often, both personally and as a mayor."
The mayor added, "For the most part I would believe that [public prayer] would work for the vast majority of denominations out there, in our particular area especially -- Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Christianity, non-denominational."
As for atheists: "They always reserve the right to step out of the room."
Pittsburgh City Council holds a moment of silence at the beginning of its Tuesday meetings. But Councilman Ricky Burgess, who occasionally presided over meetings when he was council president pro-tem, did lead council in prayers he considered to be "inclusive and ecumenical."
"My intention is not to exclude or to insult but to invite all into the presence of God as they know God," said Mr. Burgess, who is also senior pastor at Nazarene Baptist Church in Homewood.
Peter Smith: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416; Twitter @PG_PeterSmith. Moriah Balingit, Ed Blazina, Ken Fisher, Kate Giammarise and Brett Sholtis contributed.