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On May 5, with Justice Kennedy writing the principal opinion, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the Town of Greece, New York acted constitutionally in opening its monthly board meetings with prayers written and recited by members of the local clergy chosen by a government official from listings in a town directory. The Court’s close split reflected sharp disagreement about the meaning of the Establishment Clause and the permissibility of local government proceedings opening with prayers almost uniformly delivered by Christian ministers and priests and often more sectarian and doctrinal than ecumenical and latitudinarian in tone. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, the first provision appearing in the Bill of Rights, proclaims that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” While the text of the Establishment Clause references exclusively federal authority, the Supreme Court has held since the Everson v. Board of Education decision of 1947 that the guarantees afforded by the Establishment Clause also apply to limit state and local authority through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Those guarantees – whatever they may be – therefore reach municipalities such as Greece, a suburban community adjoining the major city of Rochester in upstate New York.

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William Merkel

Bill Merkel is an Associate Professor of Law at the Charleston School of Law. A former cook, civil servant, and K Street lawyer, Bill holds a doctorate in history from Oxford and a J.D. and J.S.D. from Columbia. He teaches constitutional law, international law, comparative law, and constitutional history. Bill has published extensively on subjects including Thomas Jefferson, originalism, and the Second Amendment.

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