When it came to a legislative prayer, Marsh v. Chambers (1983) did not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

Now, here’s the facts. In federal court, Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers sued that a legislature prayer violated the Establishment Clause. Also, he claimed the state paid the chaplain out of public funds, which violated the Constitution.

Here is the issue before the Supreme Court. Did the legislature prayer violate the Establishment Clause?

The Court ruled this way. The Supreme Court upheld the prayer, which wasn’t a violation of the Establishment Clause.

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice Burger followed tradition and history. He stated: “This unique history leads us to accept the interpretation of the First Amendment draftsmen who saw no real threat to the Establishment Clause arising from a practice of prayer similar to that now challenged.” The court upheld the legislative practice because the practice of legislative prayer was being done for 200 years even though it violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

That being said, Chief Justice Burger abandoned tradition in regards to his Lemon Test. In Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971), Justice Burger laid out a four factor test: 1) a law must have a secular purpose; 2) a law must not have the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting a religion; 3) a law must not result in an excessive government entanglement with religion. The Chief Justice broke with stare decisis and ruled inconsistently in this Establishment Clause case.

In regards to other points of dissent, Justice Stevens had an interesting comment about minority religions being marginalized.

Prayers may be said by a Catholic priest in the Massachusetts Legislature and by a Presbyterian minister in the Nebraska Legislature, but I would not expect to find a Jehovah’s Witness or a disciple of Mary Baker Eddy or the Reverend Moon serving as the official chaplain in any state legislature. Regardless of the motivation of the majority that exercises the power to appoint the chaplain, it seems plain to me that the designation of a member of one religious faith to serve as the sole official chaplain of a state legislature for a period of 16 years constitutes the preference of one faith over another in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Nevertheless, some believe that the Establishment Clause only applies to the federal government. They say Congress cannot establish a religion or prohibit the exercise of religion. They add a state can have an official religion, which was the case before the Constitution was drafted. Also, they argue that the First Amendment only applies to the federal government.

In brief, this decision allowed for the establishment, endorsement, and aid of religion. However, if one is an originalist and reads the Constitution with an originalist take, this decision clearly violates the Establishment Clause by establishing one religion and making tax payers pay for it. That being said, Marsh v. Chambers allowed a legislative prayer which did not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.

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