Greece v. Galloway: How This Will Play Out

Town of Greece v. Galloway atheismThe U.S. Supreme Court recently concluded in Town of Greece v. Galloway that prayer is allowable in city council meetings. I’d rather see prayer excluded—it’s hard to imagine Christians justifiably claiming injury with the elimination of this perk—but I don’t think it will amount to much. In fact, I think we’ve seen a parallel situation already that plays out satisfactorily (but more on that below).

The town of Greece, NY has for years opened its monthly meetings almost exclusively with Christian prayers, and the Supreme Court has now approved this policy. Jeff Schweitzer at responds,

A government action is invalid if it creates a perception in the mind of a reasonable observer that the government is either endorsing or disapproving of religion. Well, c’mon: excluding all religions but one is by any standard an endorsement of that one remaining religion.

I agree. The Supreme Court’s Lemon Test places several demands on actions like this, including that the law must have a genuine secular or civil purpose (more here), and I see none.

About this slap in the face to non-Christians, Justice Kennedy’s decision says,

Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum.

I’m the first to agree that the price of free speech is that we’ll come across things we dislike. As Ricky Gervais put it, “You have the right to be offended, and I have the right to offend you.” But we’re talking here about government speech. The First Amendment applies to citizens, not city councils, and taxpaying citizens of the town of Greece must sit through state-sponsored prayer to talk to their own government.

Christian excesses

No one can be surprised that we are immediately seeing some Christians cobbling together a clumsy interpretation that suits their agenda. One member of a county board of supervisors in Virginia, with an attitude that would make history revisionist David Barton proud, said:

Freedom of religion doesn’t mean that every religion has to be heard. If we allow everything … where do you draw the line?

You don’t, since it’s all or nothing. The Greece decision demands a nondiscrimination policy toward the prayers.

A more powerful voice is that of Alabama’s Chief Justice Roy Moore, who said that freedom of religion applies only to Christians. His justification, which is completely counter to the secular U.S. Constitution: “Buddha didn’t create us. Muhammad didn’t create us. It’s the God of the Holy Scripture.”

We live in interesting times.

Applicability of another amendment

One Christian response takes a typically clueless view of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”):

The national Legislative branch (and by implication, the Executive and Judicial Branches), shall not establish a national church nor shall it meddle with the free exercise of religion on the state, local, or individual level. This is a matter of historical fact.

What’s a matter of historical fact is that the 14th Amendment extends the constraints on Congress to all levels of government and that this extension has applied to the Establishment Clause since 1947.

So where is the problem, exactly?

To the Christians who think that this decision strikes a powerful blow and introduces important new freedoms, I have a few questions. No Christian prayer at the city board meeting is a problem? Seriously? You don’t get enough Christianity in the rest of your life that you have to be topped up at this meeting?

Or is it the sanction of the state what you’re after? A pat on the head from an authority to assure you that you’ve backed the right horse? That is, you acknowledge that there is no legitimate secular purpose, but you want to hijack the state to proclaim your message?

Is the goal to get everyone in a serious or productive mood? Surely Christianity isn’t the only (or even best) source for this.

Is your goal to get God’s blessing on the council’s work? Then ask for that on your own. If your small voice isn’t enough to rouse God, note that you share that problem with the priests of Baal. Elijah taunted them: “Shout louder! Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27).

How this will unfold

I think I can anticipate how the results of this decision will play out, and I don’t think it’s that big a deal.

Remember how the War on Christmas debate unfolds in any particular town. First, we have years or decades of unquestioned government support of a Christian display on city property. Next, non-Christians request that city property not be used for divisive sectarian purposes like this. The city council decides that they can keep the status quo and avoid lawsuits if they make a clear policy allowing all comers. When Christmas rolls around again, the city honors diverse requests for public displays, and city property is now festooned with displays celebrating Hanukkah, Saturnalia, Yule, Festivus, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster along with the manger scene. Christians are outraged at the cacophony, and the city council removes all religious displays from their property, like they were asked to do initially. Christians conclude that manger scenes at churches and in front of homes work just fine.

And secularists wonder why this outcome wasn’t obvious from the beginning. (I’ve written more on the War on Christmas here.)

We’re seeing this progression in Oklahoma City, where a Satanic monument is planned for public space to compete with an existing Ten Commandments monument (see the image of Baphomet above). We’re also seeing it in the town of Greece, where the city council has already heard a Wiccan prayer asking for wisdom from Athena and Apollo.

Are the threats and lawsuits really necessary? Can’t smart Christians see where this is headed and, as with the Christmas displays on public property, quickly move their local governments to the logical end of this process where no prayers at all are allowed?

Imagine how refreshing it would be to have at least one justice out of nine say,
“Religion has no place in government meetings, period. Next case.”
Luis Granados, director of Humanist Press

Photo credit: Micael Tattoo Faccio

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About Bob Seidensticker