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Marsh v. Chambers


The ruling found legislative prayer not in violation of the First Amendment based on an historical analysis rather than application of standard Court tests to determine applicability of the Establishment Clause. Legislative prayer plays an historic secular role in establishing a serious atmosphere for legislative work and does not promote a particular religion. Acceptance of ceremonial religious activities in governmental proceedings continues to foster debate as the Supreme Court wrestles with organized society's ability to recognize and accommodate religion.

For over a century the Nebraska legislature, similar to other state legislatures and even the U.S. Congress, opened each daily session with a prayer given by a chaplain paid with public funds. Presbyterian minister Robert E. Palmer had, in fact, been employed by the legislature for 16 years since 1965 to perform the duty. Issues concerning prayer had generally been resolved as they surfaced through the years. For instance, Palmer dropped reference to Christ from the prayer after receiving a complaint from a Jewish legislator. However, by 1980, disputes arose again within the legislature over the prayer. This time, no agreement was reached and legislator Ernest Chambers formally filed with Federal District Court seeking to end the practice.

Two clauses contained in the First Amendment concern freedom of religion: the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. The complaint regarding Nebraska legislative prayer focused on the Establishment Clause, which states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." The Establishment Clause guarantees the separation of church and government, more commonly known as the "separation of church and state" doctrine. Congress extended application of the Establishment Clause to state governments in the 1947 Everson v. Board of Education case. The Supreme Court subsequently established several tests to assess the constitutionality of laws and actions that came before it. The Lemon Test, formulated in the 1971 Lemon v. Kurtzman decision, has three parts, addressing purpose, effect, and involvement. To pass the test, government action must be: (1) only for secular purposes; (2) not to promote or prohibit a specific religion; and (3) not to "excessively entangle," meaning substantially involve, government in religious matters. Failure on any one of the three parts indicates a violation of the Establishment Clause.

Regarding Nebraska legislature prayer, the district court ruled in 1980 the prayer itself was not contrary to the Establishment Clause, but paying the chaplain from public funds was, and such use of funds must cease. Chambers appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals. By applying the Lemon Test the court found the practice failed decisively. The 1982 decision held that repeated use of the same minister promoted a single religion and the use of state money led to entanglement. Consequently, the court ruled the Nebraska prayers fundamentally violated the Establishment Clause and ordered the entire practice to cease. The case then was petitioned by the state of Nebraska to the Supreme Court.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1981 to 1988Marsh v. Chambers - Significance, Is There An American Civil Religion?, A Nation In Change, Impact, Further Readings