Obama Administration Backs Legislative Prayer in Amicus Brief

There’s a Supreme Court case that will be heard this October involving prayer at government meetings and I plan to post something far more thorough about it very soon.

But one update really needs to be mentioned now. The Obama administration, on Thursday, weighed in on the case with an amicus brief (PDF), intended to urge the Supreme Court to act in a certain way.

The brief says very clearly that the administration, led by Solicitor General Don Verrilli, is on the side of allowing invocation prayers:

The Obama Administration says they’re fine with invocation prayers containing these phrases.

Where, as here, legislative prayers neither proselytize nor denigrate any faith, the inclusion of Christian references alone does not constitute an impermissible advancement or establishment of religion. So long as the goal of the government-backed prayer is not to recruit believers or criticize a given faith then the practice should be supported. Neither federal courts nor legislative bodies are well suited to police the content of such prayers, and this Court has consistently disapproved of government interference in dictating the substance of prayers.

The history of prayers offered in connection with legislative deliberation in this country makes clear that a legislative body need not affirmatively solicit court-mandated variety of different religious faiths — from inside and outside of the borders governed by the legislative body — in order to avoid running afoul of the Establishment Clause. As noted, the United States House of Representatives and Senate have a long and virtually unbroken tradition of employing official chaplains. Every House and Senate Chaplain has belonged to a Christian sect, a fact of which this Court was well aware when it decided [previous legislative prayer case] Marsh.

In short, the administration is saying that Christian prayers, as long as they’re not *intended* to proselytize, are totally fine at government meetings… even if the only kind of prayers we ever hear are Christian prayers.

It really makes no sense. It shows a tremendous lack of respect for religious freedom in this country. It’s dismissive of everyone who’s not a Christian for the sake of keeping with tradition.

The Center For Inquiry’s Michael De Dora also argues against this line of thinking:

Yet there is no reason why tradition by itself — either in practice or opinion — should justify a governmental practice. Many governmental practices were popular at the founding of this country. Some of them were good; some were bad. Why should we be forced to keep any of them simply because they originate at our founding?

Taking the neutrality approach to legislative prayer, there are three alternatives to the current situation:

1) Prayers and invocations can be offered, but all religious and non-religious backgrounds must be treated fairly and represented equally.

2) There ought to be a general moment of silence before the start of a legislative session, allowing each person to reflect as he or she wishes.

3) There should be no prayers or invocations; lawmakers can pray in private before legislative sessions.

The most reasonable options given the current social and political landscape in the U.S. are probably the second and third options. There are serious practical issues with the first option…

Anyway, like I said, I’ll be posting a much more thorough breakdown of this case in the coming week, but this is a significant, disappointing development in the case. You would hope for better from an administration with a Constitutional scholar at the helm.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.


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