WASHINGTON — A divided Supreme Court ruled Monday that legislative bodies such as city councils can begin their meetings with prayer, even if it plainly favors a specific religion.
The court ruled 5-4 that Christian prayers given before meetings of an upstate New York town council did not violate the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion, citing history and tradition.
"Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court's conservative majority.
He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.
The ruling reflected a Supreme Court that has become more lenient of how government may accommodate religion in civic life without crossing the line into an endorsement of a particular faith. All nine justices endorsed the concept of legislative prayer, with the four dissenters agreeing that the public forum "need not become a religion-free zone," in the words of Justice Elena Kagan. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined her.
But there was sharp disagreement after that, and the majority ruling could encourage public bodies to give more leeway to religious expression in their ceremonial prayers and less deference to the objections of religious minorities.
The court's five conservatives said legislative prayers need not be stripped of references to a specific religion — the prayers at issue often invoked Jesus Christ — and said those given the opportunity to pray before meetings should be "unfettered" by what officials find appropriate.
The decision split the court along its usual ideological divide and, to a lesser extent, by religion. All members of the majority are Catholic, as is Sotomayor. The other dissenters are Jewish.