The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that legislative bodies could open sessions with a prayer delivered by a state-employed religious leader.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that legislative bodies could open sessions with a prayer delivered by a state-employed religious leader. (Daniel Acker)

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court will consider the constitutional limits on prayers during legislative sessions, accepting an appeal from a New York town that starts most council meetings with a Christian invocation.

The justices Monday said they will review a federal appeals court's conclusion that the Rochester suburb of Greece was improperly affiliating itself with Christianity.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that legislative bodies could open sessions with a prayer delivered by a state-employed religious leader. The latest case gives the court under Chief Justice John Roberts a chance to reinforce that ruling and insulate government bodies from legal challenges to what is now a widespread practice across the country.

"The practice of legislative prayer is firmly embedded in the history and traditions of this nation," Thomas Hungar, the lead lawyer representing the town, said in a statement. "We hope the court will reaffirm the settled understanding that such prayers, offered without improper motive and in accordance with the conscience of the prayer-giver, are constitutional."

The New York-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Greece's selection process "virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint" at the vast majority of council meetings. Under the informal invitation procedures then in place, every prayer-giver from 1999 to 2007 was a Christian clergy member, the three-judge panel said.

After two town residents complained, non-Christians delivered the invocation at four of the 12 board meetings in 2008. The group included a Wiccan priestess, the chairman of the local Baha'i congregation and a lay Jewish man who delivered two invocations.

The appeals court also said town officials took no steps to mitigate the impression that the city endorsed Christianity.

"The town had an obligation to consider how its prayer practice would be perceived by those who attended town board meetings," Judge Guido Calabresi wrote for the panel. "And, despite the homogeneity of viewpoints reflected by the invocations, the town did not explain that it intended the prayers to solemnize board meetings, rather than to affiliate the town with any particular creed."

The appeals court pointed to a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that barred a Pennsylvania county from erecting a Nativity scene in a courthouse. In that ruling, the majority said in passing that legislative prayers are impermissible if they "have the effect of affiliating the government with any one specific faith or belief."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the pivotal opinion in the 1989 case, saying the Nativity display was an impermissible governmental "endorsement" of religion.

The two residents challenging Greece's practices, Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, asked the Supreme Court not to hear the appeal. Even under the 1983 decision, legislative bodies may not use prayers to "advance one faith to the exclusion of others," they argued in court papers.

"A town council meeting isn't a church service, and it shouldn't seem like one," said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Washington-based organization behind the lawsuit. "Government can't serve everyone in the community when it endorses one faith over others."

Eighteen states, led by Indiana, and 49 members of Congress joined Greece in urging the high court to get involved.