LGIT Briefing: Legislative Prayer, the First Amendment, and the Courts

The Local Government Insurance Trust (LGIT), who covers many county governments in Maryland, offers legal guidance and perspective on first amendment issues, including prayers at meetings of public bodies.

The LGIT Leader is an occasional series of bulletins, designed for LGIT’s local government members, to serve their legal and risk management interests. The LGITSeptember 2019 edition focuses on invocations, prayers and other religious speech or presentations made during public meetings. At what point do they run afoul of the first amendment? LGIT studies relevant cases, and offers its guidance for local governments, even as the legal terrain remain murky.

From the LGIT bulletin, a capsule:

Local Government legislative bodies must be guided by the decisions in Town of Greece and Rowan County. Both cases involved legislative prayer at the local level, and, in both, the courts recognized the heightened potential for coercion that legislative prayer has at local council and board meetings. In particular, the Rowan court was concerned by the practice of lawmaker-led prayer that preceded board proceedings that involved both legislative and non-legislative matters. In other words, the court was concerned that legislative prayer was preceding board matters that were not legislative in character, and that the practice of mingling both legislative and non-legislative matters subsequent to legislative prayer could be problematic.

Ultimately, the criteria by which all legislative prayer will be measured is simply one of conveying a message of respect and welcome for persons of all beliefs and adopting a prayer practice that advances the core idea behind legislative prayer itself.

Read the full report from the Local Government Insurance Trust.

Michael Sanderson

Executive Director Maryland Association of Counties