Supreme Court Disaster: In a 5-4 Ruling, Justices Approve of Christian Prayers in Greece, New York

In a disappointing 5-4 ruling this morning, the Supreme Court ruled that sectarian prayers could be used at government meetings, at least in the town of Greece.

(If you need more background on the case, please read this.)

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

The conservatives on the court, along with Justice Anthony Kennedy voted to keep the prayers while the reliably liberal justices offered a dissent.

One silver lining in all of this is that the conservatives did not say that this means Christian prayers are okay everywhere. Their ruling appears to be limited in scope only to the town of Greece:

The conservative majority offered varying interpretations of when such “ceremonial” prayers would be permissible. Kennedy, along with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, focused on the specifics of the Greece case and did not offer a broad expansion of legislative prayer.

It’s still early and organizations involved with the case will be chiming in soon, but here are some key excerpts from the decision.

From Kennedy’s majority opinion:

To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involvegovernment in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.

Finally, the Court disagrees with the view taken by the Court of Appeals that the town of Greece contravened the Establishment Clause by inviting a predominantly Christian set of ministers to lead the prayer. The town made reasonable efforts to identify all of the congregations located within its borders and represented that it would welcome a prayer by any minister or layman who wished to give one. That nearly all of the congregations in town turned out to be Christian does not reflect an aversion or bias on the part of town leaders against minority faiths. So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing.

From Justice Samuel Alito‘s concurring opinion:

Not only is there no historical support for the proposition that only generic prayer is allowed, but as our country has become more diverse, composing a prayer that is acceptable to all members of the community who hold religious beliefs has become harder and harder. It was one thing to compose a prayer that is acceptable to both Christians and Jews; it is much harder to compose a prayer that is also acceptable to followers of Eastern religions that are now well represented in this country. Many local clergy may find the project daunting, if not impossible, and some may feel that they cannot in good faith deliver such a vague prayer.

All that the Court does today is to allow a town to follow a practice that we have previously held is permissible for Congress and state legislatures. In seeming to suggest otherwise, the principal dissent goes far astray.

From Justice Clarence Thomas‘ concurring opinion:

The majority properly concludes that “[o]ffense… does not equate to coercion,” since “[a]dults 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 would simply add, in light of the foregoing history of the Establishment Clause, that “[p]eer pressure, unpleasant as it may be, is not coercion” either.

From Justice Elena Kagan‘s dissenting opinion:

When a person goes to court, a polling place, or an immigration proceeding — I could go on: to a zoning agency, a parole board hearing, or the DMV — government officials do not engage in sectarian worship, nor do they ask her to do likewise. They all participate in the business of government not as Christians, Jews, Mus­lims (and more), but only as Americans — none of them different from any other for that civic purpose. Why not, then, at a town meeting?

the not-so-implicit message of the majority’s opinion — “What’s the big deal, anyway?” — is mistaken. The content of Greece’s prayers is a big deal, to Christians and non-Christians alike. A person’s response to the doctrine, language, and imagery contained in those invocations reveals a core aspect of identity — who that person is and how she faces the world. And the responses of different individuals, in Greece and across this country, of course vary. Contrary to the majority’s apparent view, such sectarian prayers are not “part of our expressive idiom” or “part of our heritage and tradition,” assuming the word “our” refers to all Americans.

From Justice Steven Breyer‘s dissenting opinion:

Having applied my legal judgment to the relevant facts, I conclude, like JUSTICE KAGAN, that the town of Greece failed to make reasonable efforts to include prayer givers of minority faiths, with the result that, although it is a community of several faiths, its prayer givers were almost exclusively persons of a single faith.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which argued against the sectarian prayers, just released this statement:

“The Supreme Court just relegated millions of Americans — both believers and nonbelievers — to second-class citizenship,” said the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, which sponsored the lawsuit. “Government should not be in the business of forcing faith on anyone, and now all who attend meetings of their local boards could be subjected to the religion of the majority.

“This ruling is out of step with the realities of modern-day America,” Lynn said. “In a country where pluralism and diversity are expanding every day, a Supreme Court decision that gives the green light to ‘majority-rules’ prayer at local government is exactly what we don’t need.”

The Secular Coalition for America also released a statement:

Edwina Rogers, Executive Director of the Secular Coalition for America said that sectarian legislative prayer practice does violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment and actively discourages citizens who wish to avoid taking part in sectarian prayers from participating in democratic institutions.

“We are extremely disappointed that the Court chose to ignore the very blatant burden sectarian prayer imposes on the conscience of citizens with diverse religious beliefs and those without religious beliefs,” said Rogers. “Our founders went to great lengths to ensure that no American would be disenfranchised from civic participation due to their personal religious beliefs or lack thereof. This ruling violates the founding secular principles our country was built on.

The Center For Inquiry, which wrote an amicus brief against the prayers, has weighed in:

“Our Constitution demands respect for the beliefs of everyone. Sectarian prayer during public meetings of government bodies unquestionably contradicts that constitutional mandate,” said attorney Ronald A. Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry. “Sectarian prayer endorses a particular set of religious beliefs, and excludes not only the nonreligious, but those of differing faiths. It conveys the unmistakable message that those who do not share the majority’s beliefs are second-class citizens.

Added Lindsay, “The majority’s reliance on tradition ignores the enormous changes in American society, and dismisses the concerns of the rapidly growing population of nonbelievers, as well as those who have beliefs that differ from mainstream Christianity. It’s both striking and sad that five of the six Christian justices on the Supreme Court formed the majority. With a Supreme Court that appears hostile to the rights of religious minorities, those of us who believe in a secular government must redouble our legal and advocacy efforts.

The American Humanist Association announced (via email) that they will be launching a program to “provide resources for atheists and humanists to deliver secular invocations during legislative meetings.”

The Humanist Society, an adjunct of the American Humanist Association, just launched as a platform for humanists to be identified within local government borders so that they can offer secular invocations pursuant to a legislative prayer practice. The website provides sample secular invocations and an interactive map to find a humanist who can deliver an invocation in one’s local area. Though this is a new program, there are already 50 individuals approved to give secular invocations, and the program is actively seeking to bolster this number.

“Non-religious people are often asked to contribute to a ceremonial event, but some struggle to find an alternative to religious wording,” said Roy Speckhardt, executive director of the American Humanist Association. “We want to make it easier for anyone who wants to give a secular invocation so that legislative meetings can be nondiscriminatory.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is responding by holding a contest for best secular invocation:

FFRF, the nation’s largest association of freethinkers, with more than 20,000 atheist and agnostic members nationwide, is responding to the hostile court ruling by announcing a “Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award.” The award will be given to citizens who succeed in delivering secular “invocations” at government meetings.

The individual judged to give the “best” secular invocation will be invited to open FFRF’s annual convention with the “invocation,” receiving an all-expenses-paid trip to our 37th annual convention at the Los Angeles Biltmore Oct. 24-25 and an honorarium of $500.

FFRF plans to make the contest an annual event until the Greece decision is overturned. All eligible secular invokers will receive a certificate suitable for framing, and FFRF will post the invocation on its website.

We’d like to see secular citizens flood government meetings with secular invocations that illustrate why government prayers are unnecessary, ineffective, divisive, embarrassing and exclusionary of the 20-30 percent of the U.S. population today that identifies as nonreligious,” [FFRF co-President Annie Laurie] Gaylor said.

Government officials need to get off their knees and get to work,” added Dan Barker, a former evangelical minister and author of “Godless,” who now co-directs FFRF. He has another suggestion: “Be a Paine in the government’s Mass.

The newly-formed Openly Secular also chimed in (via email) with project director Robyn Blumner writing for the group:

“Today we are disappointed by the ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court, upholding the practice of Christian prayer before official meetings by city councils and other governing bodies. This divisive issue split the court 5 to 4, demonstrating that there is nothing unifying about sectarian prayer at government functions. The court’s conservative majority is moving the country away from the founders’ vision of a nation committed to the separation between church and state. The practical consequence will be more official prayer, overwhelmingly Christian — clearly communicating to all Americans whose faith holds the power and whose beliefs don’t count.

The big question now is what happens when other towns decide to inject sectarian prayers into their meetings. Will the Court’s decision here apply to them as well, or can lawsuits still be filed by those who object?

In any case, this ruling means that we’ll be hearing “Jesus” a lot more at government meetings than we did before — and you can bet that Christian groups will be testing the boundaries of the law everywhere.

Incidentally, echoing what Ron Lindsay said, all five of the justices voting to allow the Christian prayers are Roman Catholic. While Justice Sonia Sotomayor is, too, her fellow dissenters are all Jewish.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.


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