A small New York town’s practice of opening its government meetings with a prayer does not violate the constitutional separation of church and state, a sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Monday, in a decision that both sides said could signal a major shift in the role of religion in the public square.

The case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, argued late last year, was considered one of the biggest religious freedom cases of the term. Swing-vote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joined the court’s four more conservative members in the 5-4 decision in favor of the town.

The decision reversed the ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, which held that Greece officials were endorsing Christianity and thus violating the Constitution’s Establishment Clause barring the government from favoring one religion or faith. The “chaplain of the month” at town meetings was almost always Christian and two residents sued, saying the prayers made them feel excluded from the proceedings.

Defenders of the town’s position predicted that the court ruling would have broad implications.

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