Episode 10: Marsh v. Chambers

 Photo courtesy New York Times

Photo courtesy New York Times

In 1965, the Nebraska Unicameral legislature hired a Presbyterian minister as its official chaplain to deliver prayers before each session. 15 years later, maverick Nebraska senator Ernie Chambers sued, claiming the practice of paying a minister to deliver prayers before a government body violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.

Chambers won in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. But in 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case, and take up the question of whether legislative prayer, a tradition in the federal Congress and most of the states for over two centuries, created a constitutional problem.

Bypassing precedent set just a decade before, the Court, by a vote of 6-3, upheld the Nebraska chaplain scheme, ruling that the practice of legislative prayer, even when exclusively Christian in substance and compensated with state funds, was part of a unique national history and therefore not unconstitutional. 

Question:  Did the chaplaincy practice of the Nebraska legislature violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

Answer: No.

Majority:

  • Warren Burger (majority opinion)
  • Byron White
  • Harry Blackmun
  • Lewis Powell
  • William Rehnquist
  • Sandra Day O'Connor

Dissent:

  • William Brennan (w/ opinion)
  • Thurgood Marshall
  • John Paul Stevens (w/ opinion)

Audio sources: