463 U.S. 783 (1983), 82-23, Marsh v. Chambers

Docket Nº:No. 82-23.
Citation:463 U.S. 783, 103 S.Ct. 3330, 77 L.Ed.2d 1019
Party Name:Frank MARSH, State Treasurer, et al., Petitioners v. Ernest CHAMBERS.
Case Date:July 05, 1983
Court:United States Supreme Court
 
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463 U.S. 783 (1983)

103 S.Ct. 3330, 77 L.Ed.2d 1019

Frank MARSH, State Treasurer, et al., Petitioners

v.

Ernest CHAMBERS.

No. 82-23.

United States Supreme Court.

July 5, 1983

Argued April 20, 1983.

[103 S.Ct. 3331] Syllabus[*]

SYLLABUS

The Nebraska Legislature begins each of its sessions with a prayer by a chaplain paid by the State with the legislature's approval. Respondent member of the Nebraska Legislature brought an action in Federal District Court, claiming that the legislature's chaplaincy practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and seeking injunctive relief. The District Court held that the Establishment [103 S.Ct. 3332] Clause was not breached by the prayer but was violated by paying the chaplain from public funds, and accordingly enjoined the use of such funds to pay the chaplain. The Court of Appeals held that the whole chaplaincy practice violated the Establishment Clause, and accordingly prohibited the State from engaging in any aspect of the practice.

Held: The Nebraska Legislature's chaplaincy practice does not violate the Establishment Clause. Pp. 3332-3337.

(a) The practice of opening sessions of Congress with prayer has continued without interruption for almost 200 years ever since the First Congress drafted the First Amendment, and a similar practice has been followed for more than a century in Nebraska and many other states. While historical patterns, standing alone, cannot justify contemporary violations of constitutional guarantees, historical evidence in the context of this case sheds light not only on what the drafters of the First Amendment intended the Establishment Clause to mean but also on how they thought that Clause applied to the chaplaincy practice authorized by the First Congress. In applying the First Amendment to the states through the Fourteenth Amendment, it would be incongruous to interpret the Clause as imposing more stringent First Amendment limits on the states than the draftsmen imposed on the Federal Government. In light of the history, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, a violation of the Establishment Clause; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country. Pp. 3332-3336.

(b) Weighed against the historical background, the facts that a clergyman of only one denomination has been selected by the Nebraska Legislature

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for 16 years, that the chaplain is paid at public expense, and that the prayers are in the Judeo-Christian tradition do not serve to invalidate Nebraska's practice. Pp. 3336-3337.

675 F.2d 228, reversed.

COUNSEL

Shanler D. Cronk, Assistant Attorney General of Nebraska, argued the cause for petitioners. With him on the briefs was Paul L. Douglas, Attorney General.

Herbert J. Friedman argued the cause for respondent. With him on the brief were Stephen L. Pevar, Burt Neuborne, and Charles S. Sims.*

* Solicitor General Lee, Assistant Attorney General McGrath, Deputy Solicitor General Geller, Kathryn A. Oberly, Leonard Schaitman, and Michael Jay Singer filed a brief for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal.

Briefs of amici curiae urging affirmance were filed by Nathan Z. Dershowitz and Marc D. Stern for the American Jewish Congress; by David J. Eiseman, Justin J. Finger, and Jeffrey P. Sinensky for the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai Brith; and by Thomas P. Gies for Jon Garth Murray et al.

Lanny M. Proffer filed a brief for the National Conference of State Legislatures as amicus curiae.

Shanler D. Cronk, Lincoln, Neb., for petitioners.

Herbert J. Friedman, Lincoln, Neb., for respondent.

OPINION

Chief Justice BURGER delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether the Nebraska Legislature's practice of opening each legislative day with a prayer by a chaplain paid by the State violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

I

The Nebraska Legislature begins each of its sessions with a prayer offered by a chaplain who is chosen biennially by the Executive Board of the Legislative Council and paid out of

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public funds. 1 Robert E. Palmer, a Presbyterian minister, has served as chaplain since 1965 at a salary of $319.75 per month for each month the legislature is in session.

Ernest Chambers is a member of the Nebraska Legislature and a taxpayer of [103 S.Ct. 3333] Nebraska. Claiming that the Nebraska Legislature's chaplaincy practice violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, he brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking to enjoin enforcement of the practice. 2 After denying a motion to dismiss on the ground of legislative immunity, the District Court, 504 F.Supp. 585, held that the Establishment Clause was not breached by the prayers, but was violated by paying the chaplain from public funds. It therefore enjoined the Legislature from using public funds to pay the chaplain; it declined to enjoin the policy of beginning sessions with prayers. Cross-appeals were taken. 3

The Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit rejected arguments that the case should be dismissed on Tenth Amendment, legislative immunity, standing or federalism grounds. On the merits of the chaplaincy issue, the court refused to treat respondent's challenges as separable issues as the District Court had done. Instead, the Court of Appeals assessed the practice as a whole because "[p]arsing out [the]

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elements" would lead to "an incongruous result." 675 F.2d 228, 233 (CA8 1982).

Applying the three-part test of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 612-613, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 2111, 29 L.Ed.2d 745 (1971), as set out in Committee for Public Educ. & Religious Liberty v. Nyquist, 413 U.S. 756, 773, 93 S.Ct. 2955, 2965, 37 L.Ed.2d 948 (1973), the court held that the chaplaincy practice violated all three elements of the test: the purpose and primary effect of selecting the same minister for 16 years and publishing his prayers was to promote a particular religious expression; use of state money for compensation and publication led to entanglement. 675 F.2d, at 234-235. Accordingly, the Court of Appeals modified the District Court's injunction and prohibited the State from engaging in any aspect of its established chaplaincy practice.

We granted certiorari limited to the challenge to the practice of opening sessions with prayers by a State-employed clergyman, 459 U.S. 966, 103 S.Ct. 292, 74 L.Ed.2d 276 (1982), and we reverse. 4

II

The opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country. From colonial times through the founding of the Republic and ever since, the practice of legislative prayer has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom. In the very courtrooms in which the United States District Judge and later three Circuit Judges heard and decided this case, the proceedings opened with an announcement that concluded, "God save the United States and this Honorable Court." The same invocation occurs at all sessions of this Court.

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The tradition in many of the colonies was, of course, linked to an established church,5 but the Continental Congress, beginning [103 S.Ct. 3334] in 1774, adopted the traditional procedure of opening its sessions with a prayer offered by a paid chaplain. See e.g., 1 J. of the Continental Cong. 26 (1774); 2 J. of the Continental Cong. 12 (1775); 5 J. of the Continental Cong. 530 (1776); 6 J. of the Continental Cong. 887 (1776); 27 J. of the Continental Cong. 683 (1784). See also 1 A. Stokes, Church and State in the United States 448-450 (1950). Although prayers were not offered during the Constitutional Convention,6 the First Congress, as one of

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its early items of business, adopted the policy of selecting a chaplain to open each session with prayer. Thus, on April 7, 1789, the Senate appointed a committee "to take under consideration the manner of electing Chaplains." J. of the Sen. 10. On April 9, 1789, a similar committee was appointed by the House of Representatives. On April 25, 1789, the Senate elected its first chaplain, J. of the Sen. 16; the House followed suit on May 1, 1789, J. of the H.R. 26. A statute providing for the payment of these chaplains was enacted into law on Sept. 22, 1789. 7 2 Annals of Cong. 2180; 1 Stat. 71. 8

On Sept. 25, 1789, three days after Congress authorized the appointment of paid chaplains, final agreement was reached on the language of the Bill of Rights, J. of the Sen. 88; J. of the H.R. 121. 9 Clearly the men who wrote the First Amendment Religion Clause did not view paid legislative chaplains and opening prayers as a violation of that Amendment, for the practice of opening sessions with prayer has continued without interruption ever since that early session of Congress. 10 It has also been followed [103 S.Ct. 3335] consistently

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in most of the states,11 including Nebraska, where the institution of opening legislative sessions with prayer was adopted even before the State attained statehood. Nebraska

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Journal of the Council at the First Regular Session of the General Assembly 16 (Jan. 22, 1855).

Standing alone, historical patterns cannot justify contemporary violations of constitutional guarantees, but there is far more here than simply historical patterns. In this context, historical evidence sheds light not only on what the draftsmen intended the...

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