Religion in Governmental Observances

Religion in Governmental Observances.—The practice of opening legislative sessions with prayers by paid chaplains was upheld in Marsh v. Chambers,208 a case involving prayers in the Nebraska Legislature. The Court relied almost entirely on historical practice. Congress had paid a chaplain and opened sessions with prayers for almost 200 years; the fact that Congress had continued the practice after considering constitutional objections in the Court’s view strengthened rather than weakened the historical argument. Similarly, the practice was well rooted in Nebraska and in most other states. Most importantly, the First Amendment had been drafted in the First Congress with an awareness of the chaplaincy practice, and this practice was not prohibited or discontinued. The Court did not address the lower court’s findings,209 amplified in Justice Brennan’s dissent, that each aspect of the Lemon v. Kurtzman tripartite test had been violated. Instead of constituting an application of the tests, therefore, Marsh can be read as representing an exception to their application.210

208 463 U.S. 783 (1983). Marsh was a 6-3 decision, with Chief Justice Burger’s opinion for the Court being joined by Justices White, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist, and O'Connor, and with Justices Brennan, Marshall, and Stevens dissenting.

209 Chambers v. Marsh, 675 F.2d 228 (8th Cir. 1982).

210 School prayer cases were distinguished on the basis that legislators, as adults, are presumably less susceptible than are schoolchildren to religious indoctrination and peer pressure, 463 U.S. at 792, but there was no discussion of the tests themselves.

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