WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court ruled Monday that local city and town councils can begin their hearings with prayers, even if they’re offered almost entirely by Christians and may offend some listeners.
The 5-to-4 decision cuts to the heart of a centuries-long debate: Was the United States founded to be a Christian nation, or one where there is a strong and clear line between church and state?
The ruling also marks the latest chapter in the debate over how, whether, and who should offer prayers in a legislative setting.
“As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable court’ at the opening of this court’s sessions,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, which was joined by the court’s conservative members.
Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the more liberal minority, argued that prayers offered almost entirely by one religion violate the principle “that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”
“When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another,” she wrote.
The ruling was the result of a suit brought in Greece, N.Y., an upstate town that has started its monthly board meetings with a prayer since 1999. The prayer has been open to all creeds, but because nearly all local congregations are Christian, the prayers have been, too. Between 1999 and 2007, all participating ministers were Christians.
Two residents — one Jewish, one atheist — who attended the meetings filed suit, alleging the prayers were an endorsement of Christianity.
A lower court ruled that the prayers violated the Constitution, but the Supreme Court overruled that decision.
Kennedy argued in the majority that the prayers were voluntary, and members of the public were not forced to participate. There was also no evidence, he wrote, that government decisions were influenced by a person’s participation in the prayers. And if residents heard prayers they did not endorse or believe in, he said, they should simply ignore them.
The ruling comes more than three decades after the Supreme Court upheld the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of paying a Presbyterian minister to open legislative sessions with a prayer.
Both houses of Congress have opened with prayers since 1789.
The Massachusetts House has a permanent, full-time chaplain, a position appointed by the House speaker that does not rotate among religions. The Massachusetts Senate appoints visiting chaplains and rotates them among religions, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Boston, the City Council president has traditionally assigned councilors to bring clergy members of their choosing to offer invocations at specific meetings. That has meant a diverse group, including priests, rabbis, and imams.
“I think we all look in our districts for different folks who represent the community,” said Matt O’Malley, a councilor who represents Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, and other parts of the city, noting he has brought his own pastor, a rabbi, and a Protestant minister. “It’s a very low-key, nice part of the meeting.”
Cambridge and Quincy open meetings with a moment of silence; Cambridge invites clergy of different faiths to offer a benediction when city councilors are sworn in every two years.
Joseph Finn, president of the Quincy City Council, said some have called their moment of silence a time for “divine guidance,” but he usually asks those attending meetings to take the time to remember military personnel serving at home and abroad.
“We need to be conscious of the varying religious traditions and those who may or may not believe,” said Finn, noting the city — founded in 1792 — has long sought to preserve its non-denominational roots.
In Needham, there are no prayers at Board of Selectmen meetings, but prayers are offered before Town Meeting. The moderator has traditionally selected clergy of different faiths.
Some said they viewed the ruling as a call to action for non-believers to become more vocal and offer their own blessings before civic ceremonies.
“If the Supreme Court has now permitted invocations from a diverse and pluralistic range of religious and philosophical perspectives, then we must make it extremely clear that we are here and ready and willing to deliver such invocations,” said Greg M. Epstein, humanist chaplain at Harvard University. “Given over 30 percent of American young adults . . . now identify as nonreligious, I’d like to see a day when an appropriate percentage of such invocations are delivered by humanist chaplains.”
The case centered on whether there should be different rules applied to local meetings, where residents are asking for specific actions, such as zoning decisions or license approvals. It also grappled with concerns that often only one religion gets represented in the prayers.
The legal argument involved whether the prayers violate the Establishment Clause in the Constitution’s First Amendment, which reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, said the court “upheld our first and most fundamental freedom.”
The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a brief supporting the two women who sued the town of Greece, said it was disappointed by the decision.
“Official religious favoritism should be off-limits under the Constitution,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
In the ruling, those joining Kennedy in the majority were: Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Those joining Kagan in the minority were justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor.