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WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court on Monday narrowly upheld the centuries-old tradition of offering prayers to open government meetings, even if the prayers are overwhelmingly Christian and citizens are encouraged to participate.
Chambers, upheld the Nebraska Legislature's funding of a chaplain who delivered daily prayers.
Chief Justice Warren Burger ruled then that such prayers were "part of the fabric of our society." The decision prohibited only those prayers that take sides by advancing or disparaging a particular religion.
But several justices were doubtful during oral arguments last year any prayer could satisfy everyone, leaving the court little option but to reiterate its support of legislative prayer or remove it entirely from government meetings – something they clearly did not want to do.
Justice Samuel Alito drove home that point in a separate concurrence Monday in which he called the liberals' dissent "quite niggling.""Not only is there no historical support for the proposition that only generic prayer is allowed," Alito said, "but as our country has become more diverse, composing a prayer that is acceptable to all members of the community who hold religious beliefs has become harder and harder."THREE DECADES OF CONTROVERSYThe court's 30-year-old precedent, Marsh v.
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In the end, five justices said those facts didn't make what the Greece Town Board did unconstitutional, while four others said they did."The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech," Kennedy said.Justice Elena Kagan wrote the principal dissent for the court's liberal bloc, arguing that the intimate setting of local government meetings, the participation of average citizens and the dominance of Christian prayer-givers put the policy out of bounds."When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another," Kagan said.