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Marsh v. Chambers

Marsh v. Chambers
Argued April 20, 1983
Decided July 5, 1983
Full case name Frank Marsh, State Treasurer et al. v. Ernest Chambers
Citations 463 U.S. 783 (more)
103 S.Ct. 3330, 77 L.Ed.2d 1019
Prior history Injunction granted, 504 F.Supp. 585 (D. Neb. 1980); injunction was affirmed and expounded upon, 675 F.2d 228 (8th Cir. 1982); certiorari granted, 459 U.S. 966 (1982)
The practice of hiring a chaplain for the Nebraska state legislature did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Court membership
Case opinions
Majority Burger, joined by White, Blackmun, Powell, Rehnquist, O'Connor
Dissent Brennan, joined by Marshall
Dissent Stevens
Laws applied
U.S. Const. amend. I
Overruled by
Town of Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. ___ (2014) (in part)

Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), was a landmark court case[1][2] in which the Supreme Court of the United States held that government funding for chaplains was constitutional because of the "unique history" of the United States. Three days before the ratification of the First Amendment in 1791, containing the Establishment clause, the federal legislature authorized hiring a chaplain for opening sessions with prayer.


  • Background 1
  • Question before the Court 2
  • Decision of the Court 3
  • Dissenting opinions 4
  • Subsequent history 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Nebraska state senator Ernie Chambers sued in federal court claiming that the legislature's practice of opening sessions with a prayer offered by a state-supported chaplain was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The district court held that the prayer did not violate the Constitution, but that state support for the chaplain did. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals held that both practices violated the Constitution.

Question before the Court

Does paying a chaplain for religious services using taxpayer dollars violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment?

Decision of the Court

In a 6-3 decision in favor of Marsh, Chief Justice Burger wrote the opinion for the majority.[3] The Chief Justice noted that the position of chaplain has been closely tied to the work of state and federal legislatures. "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."[4]

Dissenting opinions

Justice Brennan, with Justice Marshall joining, wrote in a dissenting opinion, "The Court makes no pretense of subjecting Nebraska's practice of legislative prayer to any of the formal 'tests' that have traditionally structured our inquiry under the Establishment Clause. That it fails to do so is, in a sense, a good thing, for it simply confirms that the Court is carving out an exception to the Establishment Clause, rather than reshaping Establishment Clause doctrine to accommodate legislative prayer."[5]

Subsequent history

The case was overruled in part by Town of Greece v. Galloway. The court held that the Establishment Clause is not violated when a town board begins their sessions with a sectarian prayer, so long as the town does not discriminate against minority faiths in determining who may offer a prayer. The court rejected the Fourth Circuit's opinion in Simpson v. Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors, which cited Marsh and held that town boards may exclude prayers that do not fit within "the Judeo-Christian tradition."[6][7]

See also


  1. ^ Gary Hartman, Roy M. Mersky and Cindy L. Tate. Landmark Supreme Court Cases: The Most Influential Decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States. 132 West 31st Street, New York, NY 10001: Facts on File, Inc. pp. 318–319.  
  2. ^ "Religious Liberty: Landmark Supreme Cases". Bill of Rights Institute. Bill of Rights Institute. Retrieved May 19, 2014. 
  3. ^ - 463 U.S. 783 (1983)"Marsh v. Chambers". The Oyez Project: Chicago-Kent College of Law. Retrieved 12 October 2013. 
  4. ^ "Marsh v. Chambers 463 U. S. 791". Justia: The US Supreme Court Center. Retrieved 12 October 2013. 
  5. ^ "Marsh v. Chambers". Retrieved 2014-01-14. 
  6. ^ "Simpson v. Chesterfield County, No. 04-1045" (PDF). UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT. 2005. Retrieved 2015-04-10. 
  7. ^ Denniston, Lyle. "Opinion analysis: Prayers get a new blessing". SCOTUSblog. Retrieved 24 April 2015. 

External links

  • ^ Text of Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983) is available from:  Findlaw 

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