Legal Feature


Prayer at City Council Meetings: Analysis and Guidelines



October 06, 2005

The issue of prayer and/or invocations at City Council meetings has come into question since the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals issued its decision in Wynne v. Town of Great Falls, South Carolina in July 2004. The purpose of this memorandum is to explain the limited import of that decision, to emphasize that constitutionally permissible methods remain for offering prayer before City Council meetings and to suggest guidance in the conduct of such meetings.

In Wynne, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that City Council members in Great Falls, South Carolina violated the Establishment Clause by engaging "as part of public business and for the citizenry as a whole, in prayers that contain explicit references to a deity in whose divinity only those of one faith believe." Wynne v. Town of Great Falls, 376 F.3d 292 (4th Cir. 2004). The Rutherford Institute believes the Wynne decision is limited in its holdings. Indeed, there are constitutionally permissible alternatives remaining that permit prayer at City Council meetings. This is confirmed by a more recent Fourth Circuit decision, Simpson v. Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, 404 F.3d 276 (4th Cir. 2005), which rejected a challenge to a county board's practice of opening board public meetings with a prayer.

Read more of John W. Whitehead's memorandum: Prayer at City Council Meetings: Analysis and Guidelines (PDF).