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September 4, 2015

Legislative Prayer Wins Broad Endorsement From Supreme Court

When the Senate returned Monday afternoon, it opened with a customary prayer by Chaplain Barry Black.

That’s a tradition that’s sure to continue, with the Supreme Court reaffirming Monday morning the broader constitutionality of legislative prayer in a case involving the small upstate New York town of Greece.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., praised the ruling. He led a group of 34 senators in filing an amicus brief supporting the town board in the case.

“Legislative prayer, in particular, is a practice that goes back to the very Founders of the Republic. It has enriched my career as a public servant, both in the Florida legislature and now in the U.S. Senate. That tradition hung in the balance in this case. If the lower court’s decision had been allowed to stand, we would have taken a dangerous turn away from the vision of our Founders,” Rubio said in a statement. “We would have moved one step further toward the ‘naked public square’ where religion is stigmatized, feared, and something best kept private. Defenders of religious freedom at home and abroad should be encouraged by today’s ruling.”

The Supreme Court split 5-4 in the case, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy writing the majority opinion.

“The Congress that drafted the First Amendment would have been accustomed to invocations containing explicitly religious themes of the sort respondents find objectionable. One of the Senate’s first chaplains, the Rev. William White, gave prayers in a series that included the Lord’s Prayer, the Collect for Ash Wednesday, prayers for peace and grace, a general thanksgiving, St. Chrysostom’s Prayer, and prayer seeking ‘the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ’,'” Kennedy wrote.

At one point, Kennedy quoted from the prayer offered by the most notable guest chaplain in recent Senate history: His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who offered the opening prayer in early March, well after oral arguments in the case decided Monday:

The prayers at issue in Greece, N.Y., have often had more explicitly Christian references than the regular Senate prayers, but the Court rejected the idea of the government imposing rules on the content of the prayers.

“Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgement of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs,” Kennedy wrote. “The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.”

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