The Return of the Jurisprudence of Tradition: 10 Points on the Kennedy Opinion in Town of Greece

Having read the decision, I thought I’d write up three separate posts on Town of Greece v. Galloway. This first post discusses Justice Kennedy’s opinion for the Court. The next one will talk about Justice Kagan’s dissent and Justice Alito’s concurrence. The final post will discuss Justice Thomas’s concurrence (joined in part by Justice Scalia).

Here are 10 points on Justice Kennedy’s opinion. The opinion was joined in full by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito. It was joined by Justices Scalia and Thomas except as to Part II(B).

1. By far the most prominent theme in Justice Kennedy’s opinion is the role of tradition and historical practice in validating the practice of legislative prayer. That point is repeated no less than six or seven times in all kinds of contexts. The practice is “part of our expressive idiom” and our “heritage.” Justice Kennedy writes that “Marsh is sometimes described as “carving out an exception” to the Court’s Establishment Clause’s jurisprudence,” inasmuch as no “tests” were applied in Marsh, but in reality, “[t]he Court in Marsh found those tests unnecessary because history supported the conclusion that legislative invocations are compatible with the Establishment Clause” That’s important. It indicates that the mode of analysis in Marsh was not a carve-out, so much as the place where all Establishment Clause analysis begins, and, under certain circumstances, where it ends.

2. Note the emphasis on both history and particularism in the following: “Marsh stands for the proposition that it is not necessary to define the precise boundary of the Establishment Clause where history shows that the specific practice is permitted….A test that would sweep away what has so long been settled would create new controversy and begin anew the very divisions along religious lines that the Establishment Clause seeks to prevent.” Very interesting. The claim seems to be that it is the rigidity of the tests themselves in this area, and their failure to grant a kind of presumptive validity to entrenched social practices and traditions, which itself generates religious division.

3. In keeping with points #1 and #2, neither the Lemon test nor the endorsement test figure in Kennedy’s analysis at all. There is only a whisper of endorsement in Kennedy’s claim in Part II(B) (which JJ. Scalia and Thomas did not join) where he writes that “[i]t is presumed that the reasonable observer is acquainted with this tradition and understands that its purposes are to lend gravity to public proceedings and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens, not to afford government an opportunity to proselytize or force truant constituents into the pews.” That certainly doesn’t mean that these tests are dead. They just are largely MIA.

4. Framing: Everybody–Justice Kennedy, Justice Kagan in dissent (of which more soon), and the parties–seems to have accepted the following framing by the Court: “The Court’s inquiry, then, must be to determine whether the prayer practice in the town of Greece fits within the tradition long followed in Congress and the state legislatures.” No member of the Court resisted this framing or opined that this was an inappropriate or wrong-headed sort of inquiry.

5. “Sectarian” prayers: “An insistence on nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer outlined in the Court’s cases.” The Court here disavows the claim that only nonsectarian prayers are within Marsh’s compass. Again the basis for the claim is in part historical: “The decidedly Christian nature of these prayers must not be dismissed as the relic of a time when our Nation was less pluralistic than it is today.” The growing diversity of the country embraces a kind of deep substantive pluralism as well. The County of Allegheny dictum characterizing Marsh as it did–relying, that is, on the fact that the chaplain in Marsh “removed all references to Christ”–is also repudiated by the Court. Kennedy writes: “Marsh nowhere suggested that the constitutionality of legislative prayer turns on the neutrality of its content.”

6. Entanglement and majoritarianism in supervision: Kennedy further remarks that requiring the Court to supervise the content of prayers would demand government over-involvement in religious matters. The cite here is to Hosanna-Tabor, not to Lemon. It would also inevitably result in majoritarian favoritism, as courts would demand words acceptable only to a majority, the effect of which would be to exclude a minority.

7. Limits: the limits on the acceptability of legislative prayer seemed to be those which “over time…denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion.” Also, where “many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort.”

8. Note the words “over time” in the previous statement. Although plaintiffs presented some evidence that two of the prayer practice occasions did not serve the traditional functions of legislative prayer as formulated by the Court, these two occasions “do not despoil a practice that on the whole reflects and embraces our tradition. Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation.” That is quite a different test than any that existed before. Moreover, the fact that nearly all of the congregations in town are Christian and therefore are substantially represented–or over-represented–in the legislative prayer practice does not itself render the practice unconstitutional: “So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.”

9. On the claim that this case could be distinguished from Marsh on the ground that civilians are coerced to participate, the plurality says that the principal purpose of legislative prayer “is largely to accommodate the spiritual needs of lawmakers and to connect them to a tradition dating to the time of the Framers….The analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity.”

10. Finally, Lee v. Weisman, which Justice Kennedy authored, is distinguished on the ground that nobody is dissuaded from leaving the meeting room during a prayer, arriving late, or making a later protest. Such activities occur regularly and pass without notice. Quiet acquiescence, in this context as compared with the school context, “does not suggest agreement with the ideas and words expressed.”

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One response to “The Return of the Jurisprudence of Tradition: 10 Points on the Kennedy Opinion in Town of Greece

  1. I agree with all of this analysis, but would also point out a potential anti-pluralist (even viewpoint discriminatory) part of the holding, which is that it “is thus possible to discern in the prayers offered to Congress a commonality of theme and tone.”

    In other words, it might violate the Establishment Clause to have an aggressive, proselytizing invocation. But it might also violate the EC to pray for the damnation of the country (e.g. Westboro Baptist prohibition okay), or to advocate for values the Court finds are not universal (e.g. pro-ethnic religions, white power religions, perhaps even certain Jewish or Orthodox sects), or those not embodied in religious traditions (e.g. unitarians or Satanists might be prohibited).

    Thoughts?

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