May a municipal governing body begin a meeting with a prayer or invocation without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?
Yes. Legislative bodies such as village boards and common councils may commence meetings with a prayer without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, under the legislative prayer exception. The seminal case on this issue is Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983). In Marsh, the U.S. Supreme Court held the Nebraska legislature’s practice of beginning legislative sessions with an invocation by an official chaplain was constitutional. The Court reasoned that legislative prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country, citing to its use pre- and post-ratification of the Constitution, and that such a practice did not violate the Establishment Clause. In 2014, the Court reaffirmed the constitutionality of legislative prayer in Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. 565 (2014), holding that even sectarian prayers before local legislative bodies are valid under the legislative prayer exception, so long as they do not denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose. As such, local legislative bodies may begin meetings with a prayer.
However, the practice of legislative prayer is wholly distinct from school prayer. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently distinguished between legislative prayer and prayer in public schools or public school events, with the latter being consistently held unconstitutional.