Thank goodness (but not God) for Justice Sonia Sotomayor. If it weren’t for her, Monday’s Supreme Court ruling upholding prayer before town council meetings in the upstate New York town of Greece would have been a straight-religion vote, with the court’s Catholics voting to uphold and its Jews voting to strike down. By joining the court’s three Jewish justices, who are also, coincidentally or not, three of its liberals, Justice Sotomayor saved the court from the embarrassment of revealing a church-state split along religious lines.
The case is going to be a landmark. It’s been three decades since, in Marsh v. Chambers, the court last decided to allow legislative prayer, that time in the Nebraska statehouse. In the interim, the Marsh decision has often been considered an outlier from establishment clause jurisprudence, a vestige dependent on the court’s desire not to rock the boat by prohibiting a practice that Congress, among others, has followed since its first meetings, before the First Amendment was enacted.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the court, made it clear Monday that Marsh is alive and well. First, he insisted that any test of constitutionality under the establishment clause of the First Amendment must be framed to permit practices deemed constitutional since the founding, including legislative prayer. If this sounds a bit like putting the cart before the horse, that’s because constitutional tests are not supposed to be devised in order to produce specific outcomes.
But Justice Kennedy explained where his principle came from: “A test that would sweep away what has so long been settled,” he wrote, “would create new controversy and begin anew the very divisions along religious lines that the establishment clause seeks to prevent.” If the purpose of the establishment clause is to avoid divisiveness along religious lines, as Justice Stephen Breyer (today a dissenter) has in the past argued, then according to the court, the clause itself should not be interpreted in such a way as to create further controversy.
Justice Kennedy then dismissed the argument that legislative prayer is only constitutional if nonsectarian, pointing out that legislative prayer in Congress has often been sectarian in the past, even if today prayer leaders are urged to adopt a nonsectarian tone.
Next, in a portion of the opinion that commanded only a plurality, Justice Kennedy applied his own favored establishment clause test — whether the government action coerced anyone to participate in religious activity against his or her will, even subtly. Justice Kennedy concluded the town wasn’t coercing anyone by holding prayers before council meetings. Those in attendance were, he said, “mature adults” who were free to come and go and avoid the prayers if they wished.
With this observation, he distinguished the case from a famous 1992 case, Lee v. Weisman, in which he wrote the opinion striking down a nondenominational prayer offered by a rabbi at a middle-school ceremony. Justice Kennedy separates children, susceptible to peer pressure, from adults.
Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia, wrote separately to offer a new and significantly improved version of his idea that the establishment clause applies only to the federal government, not the states. In the past, Justice Thomas appeared to subscribe to the historically implausible view that the words “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” were actually intended to protect state establishments of religion from congressional action. The framers’ generation considered “establishment” a dirty word, and Justice Thomas thankfully now appears to have jettisoned that view in favor of the claim that, because the First Amendment was originally intended to apply only to the federal government (leaving matters connected to religion to the states), it therefore should not be applied to the states like the rest of the Bill of Rights. I don’t agree, but this perspective at least deserves respect, based as it is on credible history.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the principal dissent, which itself is a landmark. For essentially the first time in the court’s history, she offered a full-throated defense of religious “pluralism and inclusion” as a constitutional value. Justice Kagan argued that a town hall “need not become a religion free zone.” In her view, because the prayers offered in the town of Greece were overwhelmingly Christian, the government had “aligned itself with a particular religious creed” in violation of the establishment clause. She offered hypotheticals in which sectarian prayers would, she said, violate the establishment clause.
That left her with the problem of the Marsh precedent, which she purported to accept. She differentiated the legislative prayer in Nebraska — which wasn’t always nonsectarian — by saying that the Greece town council meetings were not simply legislative, but were “also occasions for ordinary citizens to engage with and petition their government, often on highly individualized matters.” In that sense, the meetings resembled court cases more than legislative sessions — and this required the town to exercise “special care” to achieve inclusivity.
What’s most original about the dissent is its view that explicit invocation of religion would have been permissible so long as all religions were included. This conclusion is correct as a political and ethical matter — religious pluralism reduces religious conflict, sectarianism increases it. But making it a constitutional principle is exceedingly risky.
Who decides just how much religious pluralism is enough, and which denominations need to be included? Justice Kagan’s rule wouldn’t be administrable as a majority opinion. It would put the courts in the position of refereeing religious pluralism.
If the town of Greece wants to open its council meetings with prayers, it really should be inclusive. But Justice Kennedy’s plurality opinion got it right. So long as no one is coerced, inclusiveness is a political virtue — but not a constitutional requirement.
Noah Feldman, a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University, is a columnist for Bloomberg View.