May a municipal governing body
begin a meeting with a prayer or invocation without violating the
Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution?
Yes. Legislative bodies such as village
boards and city common councils may commence meetings with a prayer
without violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The
leading case on this issue is Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983). In Marsh,
the court upheld as constitutional the practice of the Nebraska
legislature of having legislative sessions begin with an invocation by
an official chaplain.
The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently
distinguished between prayer in public schools or public school events
like graduation, where prayer is unconstitutional, and legislative
prayer by municipal governing bodies or state legislatures. The U.S.
Supreme Court recently accepted its first case involving the
constitutionality of legislative prayer since it decided Marsh. The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway. The Court’s decision is expected in June 2014.