Governing Bodies: General FAQ 3

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 city common councils may commence meetings with a prayer without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The leading case on this issue is Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983). In Marsh,  the court upheld as constitutional the practice of the Nebraska legislature of having legislative sessions begin with an invocation by an official chaplain.

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently distinguished between prayer in public schools or public school events like graduation, where prayer is unconstitutional, and legislative prayer by municipal governing bodies or state legislatures.  The U.S. Supreme Court recently accepted its first case involving the constitutionality of legislative prayer since it decided Marsh.  The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway.  The Court’s decision is expected in June 2014.