By Donald Scarinci | May 28th, 2014 - 9:08am
| More

Many New Jersey town council meetings, like the City of Passaic, begin their meeting with a prayer before the public and the council members say the most unspeakable and inhuman things about one another during the public portion of the meeting.

While the right to speak at a public meeting, even if what is said is abusive, rude and utterly offensive, has always been protected by the United States constitution. The right to open the slugfest with a prayer has been questionable until now.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway that prayer before a local town council meeting is constitutional. The decision makes it more difficult for plaintiffs to challenge legislative prayers, but it doesn’t eliminate the possibility entirely either. In examining the Court’s opinion, there are a few pointers for how to open a council meeting or school board meeting with prayer.

Avoid being overly sectarian or coercive

The majority opinion focused on the fact that the town meeting opened the opportunity to lead a prayer to everyone and allowed anyone to say anything during public comment. The fact that the large majority of the prayers were Christian was not the Town’s fault. The Court also did not feel that the fact that the citizens attending the meeting felt pressure to pray was significant. Kennedy stated that citizens who “feel excluded or disrespected” by such religious invocations should simply ignore them. “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable,” he wrote. 

Don’t preach conversion

The Court condemned invocations that, cumulatively over time, “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion.” The Court warns that it would be inappropriate for town officials to direct citizens to participate in the prayers or suggest that their decisions would be affected by an individual’s participation in the prayer or disfavor would be shown to non-participants. The Court made it clear that its ruling does not protect legislative prayers that negate other religions or promote incivility. In other words, this type of prayer must meet the Court’s definition of civil standards.

Keep it traditional

The Court looked at the fact the prayers vary in their degree of religious focus because they also sought peace for the country, wisdom for lawmakers and justice for its citizens. These values are considered to be universal as well as religious traditions. Thus, the majority opinion appears to approve of prayers that abide by our country’s long tradition of universal values, even if they are also primarily Christian.

While the Court provided guidance, there is still not a bright line drawn. Perhaps this was the Court’s intention. Having an unclear test is often the best means for causing both sides to take pause.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Lyndhurst, N.J. based law firm Scarinci Hollenbeck.  He is also the editor of the Constitutional Law Reporter and Government and Law blogs


The Back Room

Sources: Why Fox?

With the support of Gov. Chris Christie, Jamie Fox is on the fast track to get back to the Department of Transportation (DOT). The question is why?

Read More >

Wake-Up Call

Morning Digest: September 18th

Guv prospects Fulop and Sweeney add voices to Silva, Stack and striking 1199 SEIU workers UNION CITY – They tried out their blue collar tough guy tonsils today in front of a purple-shirted crowd of striking healthcare workers – two of three as-yet-undeclared Democratic candidates for governor: Jersey City...


Legislation needed for publicly financed gubernatorial elections

By JEFF BRINDLE It is critical that the Legislature soon enact a pending bill that would ensure the state’s Gubernatorial Public Financing Program is available in the event of a special election for governor.  Not only is there no current legal... Read More >


(9-17-14) Viral Video Prompts Questionable NJ Municipal Ordinance -  Socrates said, “While I might disagree with what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say... more »
The Correct Foreign Policy – Neither Fortress America Nor Pax Americana      Last week marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War 2.  It started with the... more »
(Asbury Park, NJ) -- There's a word for someone who says one thing and does another: hypocrite.  There's no shortage of 'em in Trenton -- from ... more »
 The following letter was sent today to Republican state legislators, county chairs, state committee members, and New Hampshire... more »

Quote of the Day

quote of the day

“We’re going to hold the line until hell freezes over, and when hell freezes over, we’re going to hold the line on ice skates." - Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-31), at yesterday's SEIU 1199 rally.

- PolitickerNJ


Who would make the best running mate for Chris Christie if he lands the GOP nomination for president?:


Visit the page for links to the best collection of information on New Jersey state government.


  • Polls
  • The best blogs
  • Columnists
  • State election results
  • Assembly election results
  • Local party websites
  • And more.