Can a City Use Public Funds for City Council Religious Prayers?

[One of 50 articles written and published for Demand Media in 2013]

American government at all levels must serve citizens equally regardless of their faith or lack of it. The Constitution does not permit governments to promote or even give the appearance of allying with any specific religious tradition. Consequently, there are restrictions on funding when government and faith intersect. To avoid confusion, it’s important to distinguish between public and private prayer. Funding in support of public prayer that involves any government agency — a city, state, school, legislature, etc. — is restricted. Private prayer in any form is not restricted.

Establishment Clause
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The Supreme Court interprets this to mean government cannot advance, promote or highlight religious belief. When a prayer invokes a specific deity, such as Jesus Christ, Allah, Mohammad, Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, etc., it singles out a specific faith. This form of public prayer cannot be sponsored by government.
Why not? Historically, various faiths have come into conflict. To avoid becoming mired in such conflicts, the Constitution forbids the creation of national and state churches, and the creation of laws that would interfere with faith. It is essentially a “hands-off” approach; government abstains from entanglement with religion. This prevents any one group from using government as a vehicle for promoting its faith.

Nondenominational Prayer
In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled that nondenominational prayer does not advance any specific religion and therefore does not violate the establishment clause. This ruling means cities are free to pay chaplains and representatives of various faiths to provide a prayer at meetings and other public events as long as it remains nondenominational. These prayers tend to be Christian in form, but when no specific deity is called, they do not breach the traditional “wall of separation” between church and state.

The 1983 ruling created a compromise, and the nature of compromise is that not everyone is fully satisfied with the result. Public prayer is permitted, which dissatisfies those who wish to maintain a clear wall of separation, but public prayer is restricted, dissatisfying those who prefer no restrictions. The decision preserves the intent of the establishment clause by preventing any government entity from advancing a specific belief.

Ongoing Developments
Prayer at city council meetings, whether paid for by tax dollars, offered by paid public servants or offered free of charge, continues to attract attention and controversy. In March 2013, the Staunton, Virginia, City Council voted to alter its customary practice of pre-meeting prayer to include moments of silence and follow a practice of rotating invocations by council members before work sessions. In April 2013, Newberry Township, Pennsylvania, revised its prayer practice on the advice of attorneys after objections were raised in a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. In August 2012, an atheist gave the invocation at a Tulsa, Oklahoma, City Council meeting, an event widely noted for its novelty. On May 20, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up a case on prayer at government meetings from Greece, New York; a decision is expected by June 2014. Several groups regularly monitor and report from a variety of perspectives. These include the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, American Center for Law & Justice and the Heritage Foundation.