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Prayer & Pledges—Should You or Shouldn’t You?


February 5, 2018 by Jim Doherty
Category: Legislative Body

Prayer & Pledges—Should You or Shouldn’t You?

How do you start your Council or Board meetings?

MRSC has received several calls recently about starting meetings of a local government legislative body with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance. Some of the inquiries have been prompted by newly elected officials who feel that such procedures are, or are not, appropriate for their local government agency.

Prayers at the start of a local government meeting are often referred to as an “invocation.” What becomes problematic is that opinions differ on whether mixing religion and politics is appropriate.

Similarly, having those present at a local government meeting recite the Pledge of Allegiance can also become complicated because some view the pledge as an unnecessary recitation — a “litmus test” regarding a person’s patriotism.

This blog will look at both issues and provide some background.

Prayer/Invocations

The U.S. Supreme Court dealt with this issue recently in Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014). The court ruled that starting local government meetings with a prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. The court also ruled that requiring the invocation to be “nonsectarian” would force the governmental body to act as supervisors or censors of religious speech.

Here are the background facts and the court’s ruling, as presented in the official summary of the court’s decision:

Since 1999, the monthly town board meetings in Greece, New York, have opened with a roll call, a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, and a prayer given by clergy selected from the congregations listed in a local directory. While the prayer program is open to all creeds, nearly all of the local congregations are Christian; thus, nearly all of the participating prayer givers have been too. Respondents, citizens who attend meetings to speak on local issues, filed suit, alleging that the town violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by preferring Christians over other prayer givers and by sponsoring sec­tarian prayers.

In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no constraints remain on its content. The relevant constraint derives from the prayer’s 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. From the Nation’s earliest days, invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds, striving for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion, even if they disagree as to religious doctrine. The prayers delivered in Greece do not fall outside this tradition. They may have invoked, e.g., the name of Jesus, but they also invoked universal themes, e.g., by calling for a “spirit of cooperation.” Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible gov­ernment purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a par­ticular prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation. See 463 U. S., at 794–795. Finally, so long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.

The U.S. Supreme Court wrestled with the issues in Town of Greece v. Galloway. Attorneys are encouraged to review the decision and the concurring and dissenting opinions (80 pages in total!).

Yes, prayer can get complicated. Though many people in our communities have strong religious or spiritual beliefs, many are not in favor of starting public meetings with an invocation. Sometimes it is because the typical invocation wording does not reflect their particular beliefs, and sometimes it is because they are more comfortable with private religious expression in their churches and do not feel that religious views can be given full, appropriate expression in the public setting — even if the U.S. Supreme Court says that it does not necessarily violate the constitution.

The Pledge of Allegiance

The standard Pledge of Allegiance has also become a source of contention, partly because it also mixes religion with politics — for example, the words “under God” were added to the pledge in 1954.  More recently, some people have used the time for recitation of the pledge at sporting events as an opportunity to express political dissent.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that students cannot be compelled to recite the pledge, nor punished for not doing so — see West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943). Similarly, in that same year, the Supreme Court of Washington reversed a Clallam County superior court decision that had approved removing three children from their parents because the children had refused to recite the pledge at their school — see Bolling v. Superior Court for Clallam County (1943).

We are not aware of any appellate court decisions in the State of Washington dealing with recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at local government meetings.

The Bottom Line

Whether to have an invocation (prayer) or a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of a local government meeting is a matter of discretion to be decided by the local government legislative body.

If you choose to start your meeting with an invocation, we recommend that you adopt a policy consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court decision mentioned above — your legal counsel should assist with drafting the policy or should review the policy prior to adoption.

Here are three sample policies for invocations:

Questions? Comments?

If you have questions about this or any other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772. If you have comments about this blog post or other topics you would like us to write about, please email me jdoherty@mrsc.org.

About Jim Doherty

Jim has over 24 years of experience researching and responding to varied legal questions at MRSC. He is the lead attorney consultant and has special expertise in transmission pipeline planning issues, as well as the issues surrounding medical and recreational marijuana.

VIEW ALL POSTS BY Jim Doherty

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