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Marsh v. Chambers

463 U.S. 783 (1983)

Facts of the Case:

Chambers was a member of the Nebraska state legislature who objected to its chaplaincy policy. The clergyman who opened each session with a prayer was paid by public funds. The District Court objected to the use of public money to pay the preacher’s salary while the Appellate Court objected to the prayer being offered.


By a 6-3 vote the Supreme Court permitted the practice of beginning the legislative session with a prayer given by the publicly funded chaplain.

Majority Opinion: (Chief Justice Burger)

The use of prayer is embedded in the nation’s history and tradition. That the practice of the Nebraska legislature is consistent with the framers’ intent is proven by their use of chaplains. Additionally, the Supreme Court and Congress have traditionally begun their sessions with prayers. Individual states do not have to abide by more stringent First Amendment limits than the federal government. The “Establishment Clause does not always bar a state from regulating conduct simply because it harmonizes with religious concerns.” Because of the principles upon which the nation has developed, religion has become part of the fabric of society. The offering of the prayer is a “tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.” The public payment of the chaplain is historically allowable because it was done by the Continental Congress years earlier. The pervasiveness of involving prayer with governmental activity without adverse effect has shown that there is no real threat from continuing the practice.


The Court placed a heavy reliance on looking to history and the intent of the framers in reaching this decision. Because the practice had been done for many years, it had become a communication of shared values rather than a decidedly religious practice.

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