Let’s hear it for The New York Times, a newspaper that can always be trusted to get key information on both sides of hot religious and cultural debates into print.
Wait. Say what?
Actually, in contrast with the CNN Belief Blog editorial that our own Jim Davis parsed this morning, the basic Times news report on the Supreme Court’s Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, Et Al decision (.pdf) does a pretty good job of allowing readers to hear voices on both sides of this important debate.
The bottom line: This story managed to mention one of the most crucial questions facing the justices, which is, “Is nonsectarian prayer possible?” And after that question comes another church-state puzzle: Who is in charge of determining whether any given believer’s sort-of-free speech is nonsectarian enough to pass muster with state officials?
As always, the crucial swing vote in this 5-4 decision belonged to America’s uncrowned king, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, a pro-business moral-libertarian country-club Republican who is to some degree an American Catholic.
Readers quickly learn some important facts:
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that a town in upstate New York had not violated the Constitution by starting its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month” who was almost always Christian and who sometimes used distinctly sectarian language. The prayers were ceremonial, Justice Kennedy wrote, and served to signal the solemnity of the occasion. …
Justice Elena Kagan said in dissent that the town’s practices could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.” …
She did not propose banning prayer, Justice Kagan said, but only requiring officials to take steps to ensure “that opening prayers are inclusive of different faiths, rather than always identified with a single religion.”
The situation in Greece, N.Y., is pretty familiar. Town officials insist that all kinds of people are welcome to line up to give prayers — atheists included — but, as the story notes, in practice “almost all of the chaplains were Christian.” Some believers have even made references to offensive concepts such as Jesus dying on the cross.
This has, of course, offended some citizens who have lawyers.