The US Supreme Court has backed a town council’s freedom to pray at the beginning of its meetings after two local residents complained that the practice was explicitly Christian.
The result was welcomed by religious liberty organisations, with one saying prayer is a “cherished freedom”.
The Supreme Court ruled five to four in favour of the town of Greece, New York, with judge Anthony Kennedy saying the prayers do not exclude those with no religious faith.
He said: “The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers”.
Kennedy also commented that judges should not rule on the content of prayer because it could lead to lawmakers censoring chaplains’ messages in order to make them “acceptable for the public square”.
The local council primarily has Christian prayers, but has also included people from the Wicca and Baha’i faiths, following a complaint by residents.
Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway both objected to the prayers, claiming they felt unwelcome and alienated.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which brought the lawsuit of behalf of the two women, criticised the decision, saying: “Government should not be in the business of forcing faith on anyone”.
However, Alliance Defending Freedom, which supported the town in court said: “In America, we tolerate a diversity of opinions and beliefs; we don’t silence people or try to separate what they say from what they believe.
“Opening public meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution themselves practiced.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty said: “As a people we will always have disagreements about religion”.
“But that reality cannot be used as an excuse to banish religious activity entirely from public life”, Eric Rassbach from the group added.