Seven Simple Guidelines for Legislative Prayer

by Holland & Knight LLP
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The U.S. Supreme Court on May 5, 2014, ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway that local governments may start their regular meetings with a prayer in the nature of the invocations given before Congress. The various justices were sharply divided, however, on how that prayer should be delivered and what it may include. For a summary of the Court's decision and all five opinions in the case, see Holland & Knight's alert, "In Town of Greece, U.S. Supreme Court Affirms Constitutionality of Prayer at Town Meetings," May 7, 2014.

The following is a set of seven basic guidelines for local legislative prayer that fit the standards set by the majority of justices. There certainly is no guarantee that any set of guidelines will protect a governmental body against complaints or lawsuits, but approaching legislative prayer under these guidelines will help to reduce the legal risks.

  1. The prayer should be included on the agenda. If it is known who will be giving the prayer, the agenda should include the name and organization of the prayer-giver.
  2. The governmental body's policy should be to invite prayer-givers of as wide a variety faith as reasonably possible.
  3. The prayer should be scheduled to be delivered at the very beginning of the meeting – immediately after the call to order and roll call.
  4. The governmental body should advise the prayer-givers that the audience at the meeting is likely to include people of different faiths and that prayer-givers should be respectful of that. (Note that it is not necessary for the prayer to be non-sectarian.)
  5. The governmental body should advise prayer-givers to address the prayer to the corporate authorities – not to the audience. The prayer-givers should not instruct the audience to participate in the prayer by saying things like "please rise," or "bow your heads." Instead, a simple "let us pray" is a better phrase to use.
  6. The governmental body should designate a specific place where the prayer-giver always stands. That place should allow the prayer-giver to face the corporate authorities – perhaps from the side so that the prayer-giver's back does not need to be toward the audience.
  7. The governmental body should include on the agenda or post on its website (a) that it invites prayer-givers of many faiths to give its prayer; (b) that the prayer is intended to emphasize the gravity and importance of the legislative duties the corporate authorities are undertaking; and (c) that resident volunteers will be given the opportunity to serve as prayer-givers.

 

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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