The 5-4 decision means the town council of Greece can continue to invite religious figures in its community to lead prayers at the start of its monthly meetings.
A lawsuit argued the prayers have been overwhelmingly Christian and instead should be replaced by nonsectarian prayers or a moment of silence. But the high court's five conservative-leaning justices agreed the prayers are in keeping with the nation's traditions.
"Legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society," Justice Anthony Kennedy said in writing for the majority.
The town of Greece opened every town meeting from 1999 through 2007, and again from January 2009 through June 2010, with a Christian-oriented invocation. In 2008, after residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens complained, four of 12 meetings were opened by non-Christian prayers.
Justice Elena Kagan, leading the minority, said the town council's practice "does not square with the First Amendment's promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government."
"Greece's board did nothing to recognize religious diversity," she wrote in the dissent.
Those opposing the town meeting prayers argued that — because the public commonly participates in local government meetings much more directly than at legislative meetings at the state or federal level — sectarian prayers can have a coercive effect. A Muslim or Jew, for example, who attends a town board meeting to apply for a business license may feel intimidated or coerced if they're asked to stand while a Christian prayer is read.
The decision is the high court's first ruling on legislative prayer since the landmark 1983 Supreme Court case Marsh v. Chambers, which said the Nebraska legislature had the constitutional right to use public money to pay for a chaplain due to the nation's "unique history."
Monday's decision likely will strengthen the viability of the 30-year-old ruling, as it has been widely interpreted by courts regarding prayer in a government setting.
Conservative and religious groups praised the Greece v. Galloway ruling, with the Alliance Defending Freedom saying the town council's invocations represent a "cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution themselves practiced."
"In America, we tolerate a diversity of opinions and beliefs; we don’t silence people or try to separate what they say from what they believe," said the group's senior counsel, David Cortman.
But Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the decision is "out of step with the realities of modern-day America."
"In a country where pluralism and diversity are expanding every day, a Supreme Court decision that gives the green light to ‘majority-rules’ prayer at local government is exactly what we don’t need," said Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, which sponsored the lawsuit.
A lower court had ruled in the town’s favor, finding that the town didn't intentionally exclude non-Christians. It also said that the content of the prayer wasn't an issue because there was no desire to proselytize or demean other faiths.
But a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit said that even with the high court’s 1983 ruling, the practice of having one Christian prayer after another amounted to the town’s endorsement of Christianity.