Several Atheist Groups File Joint Amicus Brief for Supreme Court Prayer Case

You’re going to see a few of these coming down the pipeline in the next few days. With the oral arguments for Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court case that could decide the fate of government invocation prayers, taking place in just over a month, pro-church/state separation groups are beginning to file their briefs in support of the Galloway side.

(If you need a refresher on what the heck I’m talking about, just check out this post, some of which I’m reposting below.)

Susan Galloway (left) and Linda Stephens (Heather Ainsworth – Bloomberg)

Yesterday, a joint brief was filed by a number of groups, including the Center for Inquiry, Americans for Religious Liberty, and the various members of the Secular Coalition for America (including American Atheists, American Ethical Union, American Humanist Association, the Institute for Humanist Studies, Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, Secular Student Alliance, and the Society for Humanistic Judaism).

The focus of the brief in almost entirely on the last Supreme Court case to deal with government prayer: Marsh v. Chambers.

In 1983, Ernie Chambers was (and still is) a state senator from Nebraska and he sued the state over the fact that legislative sessions began with a non-denominational invocation prayer offered by a state-funded chaplain.

Ernie Chambers

Chambers, who has since come out as an atheist, ended up losing the case in the Supreme Court on a 6-3 decision. Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote in his majority opinion:

In light of the history, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, a violation of the Establishment Clause; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.

The Court said paid chaplains and non-denominational prayers were fine because the whole practice was part of our nation’s history: Hell, the Founding Fathers themselves authorized the appointment of paid chaplains when they wrote the First Amendment. If they didn’t think it violated the First Amendment, then we shouldn’t think it violates the First Amendment, the argument went. It was originalism on steroids. The Court allowed such prayers as long as speakers didn’t proselytize and the government wasn’t disparaging or advancing a particular faith.

That brings us back to the amicus brief. CFI and its allies are saying the justices should rethink the decision in Marsh. It was wrongly decided then, and it shouldn’t be used as a precedent for keeping Christian invocation prayers now:

First, experience belies Marsh’s foundational premise that sectarian legislative-body prayer is essentially a harmless ceremonial practice which harmonizes with our nation’s widely held religious beliefs. To the contrary, this country’s experience with deliberative-body prayers since Marsh has been turbulent and divisive. Deliberative-body prayer can foster exclusion and harassment of minority groups, political disruption, and even violence directed at those who object to state-sponsored religious worship.

It’s hard to argue with that. If you’ve been following lawsuits and complaints involving invocations over the past several years, you know the drill by now. A Christian City Council wants to implement Christian prayers for the Christian majority. The problems occur whenever someone else wants to join in or put a stop to the sectarian divisiveness.

The other issue brought up in the brief is that our society is more religiously diverse now that it was 30 years ago when Marsh was decided, meaning that there’s “no basis in today’s society to presume that deliberative-body prayer practices will widely harmonize rather than conflict with the religious beliefs of community residents.”

As a result, the world in which Marsh deemed legislative prayer “a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country,”… does not exist today. In recent years, deliberative-body prayer practices have proved deeply divisive, and that trend is bound to continue as communities include more residents who adhere to minority religions, are atheist or agnostic, or hold individual religious beliefs not affiliated with any organized religion. Petitioner’s argument that Marsh should shield deliberative-body prayer practices from genuine scrutiny ignores these realities.

Finally, the brief argues that subsequent Supreme Court decisions dealing with religion all point away from this notion that sectarian prayers at government meetings are a good idea.

It may be hard for Christians — especially politically conservative ones — to understand how true all of this is. You don’t notice these things when you’re in the majority. But those of us who have seen the battle from the other side know damn well how Christians have used the law to promote themselves and their faith over the rest of us.

The Supreme Court needs to do the right thing and let the Appeals Court’s ruling stand. Let’s do away with these sectarian prayers once and for all.

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.