Court is naive in public prayer case
When I lived in Alabama, I often ate lunch with a colleague who prayed silently before her meals.
No matter where we were — the cafeteria, a Chinese restaurant, a diner — she would bow her head, close her eyes and press her palms together. I never joined in. Instead I sat quietly, waiting until she was done to dig into my food.
I found my colleague’s simple expression of faith endearing. But if she had been in the habit of rising before each meal, inviting our fellow diners to pray with her and praying loudly over her food, I would have stopped eating lunch with her.
This week’s Supreme Court ruling upholding prayer at local council meetings, even if it endorses a specific religion, was an unsettling reminder of how much I object to prayer in the public sphere, where people of all faiths, not to mention atheists and agnostics, are supposed to be treated as equals. It isn’t hard to predict the outcome of this decision: It will embolden those who believe America is a Christian nation and marginalize those who see things differently.
As Justice Elena Kagan put it in her dissent, “I think the town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality — the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.” In other words, we’re going to be hearing a lot more about Jesus at town board and city council meetings, whether we like it or not.
Interestingly, the Supreme Court case pit the town of Greece, outside Rochester, against two women, an atheist and a Jew. These women objected to the town’s longstanding practice of offering explicitly Christian prayers, two-thirds of which mentioned Jesus, at meetings. In 2007, when the lawsuit was filed, chaplains of other faiths were occasionally invited to deliver the prayer.
Prior to this week’s Supreme Court ruling, prayers at government meetings were permitted as long as they did not advance or disparage a particular religion. The Greece v. Galloway decision expands upon this line of thinking, declaring the content of the prayers doesn’t matter as long as it does not disparage non-Christians or try to convert people. In doing so, the court is naively suggesting prayer is an occasion for benign pleasantries, rather than conviction and fervent belief. It regards prayer — specifically Christian prayer — as an American tradition, which strikes me as rather dangerous, given the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause bars the federal government from establishing a religion.
Now, I’m not opposed to prayer. If you feel like praying, go ahead.
I’m also OK with moments of silence, and I’ve grudgingly accepted that towns and cities have the right to offer prayers before meetings, though I’ll admit I’m comfortable with the practice when an effort is made to invite clergy of different religions and sects to speak.
But moments of silence and non-sectarian prayers are not enough for the Christian nation crowd. They want to be able to pray to Jesus, and they want to do it at public meetings and public school events.
Perhaps I just know too many Jews and non-believers to view permitting explicitly Christian prayer as an undeniably positive thing. I count such people among my closest friends, and they do not want the government imposing religion upon them at public meetings.
And I can understand where they’re coming from, because there are Christians, such as myself, who might object to having other Christians impose their beliefs upon them. Christianity is not a monolith, which is why there are so many different denominations and churches.
There are also shades of gray.
I objected to the inclusion of an explicitly Christian prayer at my high school graduation, but I defended our salutatorian’s right to deliver a speech about her Christian faith. I viewed the prayer as a school-sanctioned endorsement of religion, but the speech as a young woman’s personal expression of faith, protected under the First Amendment.
What I find remarkable is that public prayer is still such a hot-button issue — that people are still debating when public prayer is appropriate and which kinds of prayers are permitted.
The Supreme Court ruling doesn’t settle the issue. It just paves the way for more conflict and controversy.