When is it okay to start a public meeting with a prayer?

If you’ve ever attended a county board or a city council meeting, you may have been surprised to see the session start with a prayer. Isn’t it a violation of the Establishment Clause to pray at a public government meeting? Well, to use every lawyer’s favorite phrase, “It depends.”

The United States Supreme Court has decided that legislative invocations do not violate the Establishment Clause because they were being done in Congress before, during, and after the ratification of the First Amendment—so the founders must not have intended to ban it. However, there are some guidelines that local governments must follow:

  • The prayer should be directed towards lawmakers, not the public.
  • The purpose of the prayer should be to solemnify the occasion or to reflect on nondenominational values that may guide lawmakers—not to proselytize, evangelize, or claim the superiority of one faith.
  • The prayer should be delivered by a member of the community, not a lawmaker or government employee.
  • The public should not be directed to stand, bow their heads, or participate in the prayer. That choice must be left up to each individual.
  • The prayer should be as broad or inclusive as possible and should avoid naming a specific deity or reference a specific religion.
  • The prayer should not be given by the same faith every single week. People who subscribe to any religion or no religion should be welcome to give the invocation.

On the other hand, school boards may not open their meetings with prayer. Over 50 years of Supreme Court precedent has firmly ruled that prayer at school events is unconstitutional. School board meetings are more like school-sponsored events than legislative meetings, and public schools must not advance or endorse religion. Students often attend school board meetings, and the courts have repeatedly recognized the importance of protecting children from school-sponsored prayer. Children and adolescents are just beginning to develop their own belief systems, and they absorb the lessons of adults as to what beliefs are appropriate or right.

The best practice is to have no prayer at the beginning of meetings. Here are some alternatives that solemnify the meeting without bringing in religion:

  • Say the pledge of allegiance.
  • Read the governing board’s mission statement.
  • Open with a secular invocation, such as “Let us all remember that we are here to work together and make wise decisions for the good of our community.”
  • Perform a moment of silence.
  • Pray privately before the public meeting.

For more information about invocations, including a more detailed explanation of the guidelines, see the Guidelines for Legislative Invocations on Secular AZ’s website. And if you think your local government is violating the Constitution or you just have questions about best practices, feel free to reach out to legal@secularaz.org.

Adriana Clark is a recent law school graduate and legal fellow with Secular AZ.