Written by Don Byrd
At the end of their term last week, the Supreme Court issued an order denying a request to hear a pair of legislative prayer cases, despite the seeming conflict between the appeals court decisions in question. The Court’s petition denial leaves those appeals court rulings in place.
In Rowan County (NC) v. Lund, the 4th Circuit ruled unconstitutional a prayer policy in which county commissioners led opening prayers. “[L]egislator-led prayer is not inherently unconstitutional,” the court stated, but it does “heighten the constitutional risks” involved in opening government meetings with invocations. In light of that risk, the prayers at issue, the court found, often promoted Christianity and denigrated other faiths, in violation of the First Amendment.
in Bormuth v. County of Jackson (MS), on the other hand, the 6th Circuit found a similar policy of legislator-led prayer lawful and ruled that there is no constitutional significance to the identity of the prayer-giver, whether a government official, as here, or a local member of the clergy, as in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court’s most recent legislative prayer decision.
Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Gorsuch, dissented from the decision not to hear the cases. The Court “should have stepped in to resolve this conflict,” Thomas wrote, and to address what he found to be the flawed approach of the 4th Circuit in Lund. The only real difference between Lund and Town of Greece, according to the dissent, “is the person leading the prayer.” And after examining the practice of legislator-led prayer in America, the dissent found it to be in line with historical tradition.
For more on this topic, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s Town of Greece resource page.
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