Can You Constitutionally Open Court with a Prayer?

posted by Judge_Burke @ 18:52 PM
August 25, 2016

There is no doubt that many judges pray before they go on the bench. They pray that the lawyers will be short and concise and they fervently may pray that the case will settle. However, not many judges actually pray out loud to open court sessions. Professor Ruthann Robson who teaches at the City University of New York had a short interesting commentary on the issue of opening court sessions with a prayer.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has issued an opinion today that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is not violated if court were opened with a prayer.  He stated:

A court would likely conclude that a Justice of the Peace’s practice of opening daily court proceedings with a prayer by a volunteer chaplain as you describe is sufficiently similar to the facts in Galloway such that the practice does not violate the Establishment Clause.

Galloway is the United States Supreme Court’s sharply divided 2014 opinion in Town of Greece v. Galloway which involved a town board meeting. Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court in Galloway repeatedly referred to the issue as whether the “legislative prayer” approved by the Court in Marsh v. Chambers (1983) as part of a historical practice extended to a local legislature, despite the fact that some non-legislative functions occurred at the town board. In the dissent on behalf of four Justices, Justice Kagan essentially argued that a prayer at the beginning of a trial was clearly unconstitutional.  Indeed, in his separate concurring opinion, Justice Alito seemingly agreed:

I am troubled by the message that some readers may take from the principal dissent’s rhetoric and its highly imaginative hypotheticals. For example, the principal dissent conjures up the image of a litigant awaiting trial who is asked by the presiding judge to rise for a Christian prayer, of an official at a polling place who conveys the expectation that citizens wishing to vote make the sign of the cross before casting their ballots, and of an immigrant seeking naturalization who is asked to bow her head and recite a Christian prayer. Although I do not suggest that the implication is intentional, I am concerned that at least some readers will take these hypotheticals as a warning that this is where today’s decision leads—to a country in which religious minorities are denied the equal benefits of citizenship.

Nothing could be further from the truth. All that the Court does today is to allow a town to follow a practice that we have previously held is permissible for Congress and state legislatures. In seeming to suggest otherwise, the principal dissent goes far astray.

At least for Attorney General Ken Paxton, Justice Kagan’s hypothetical was not as “highly imaginative” as Justice Alito averred. Paxton’s opinion recognizes that the only United States Circuit court opinion to directly consider the issue, North Carolina Civil Liberties Union Legal Found. v. Constangy (4th Cir. 1991), found opening court with prayers unconstitutional, but Paxton opines “other courts deciding the issue may disagree with Constangy that prayer in judicial settings lacks historical foundation.”  Thus, Paxton states that “a Justice of the Peace’s practice of opening daily court proceedings with a prayer by a volunteer chaplain,” would not violate the Establishment Clause.


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