Should the high court have backed town council prayers?

BRAD ASKS:

[Regarding the U.S. Supreme Court's new Greece v. Galloway ruling that allows prayers before town council meetings]: Is the door being nudged open for an ugly discourse on separation of church and state?

THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:

Brad fears this pro-prayer decision might stir up ugliness, but The Guy thinks there’s be more of it if the Court had instead barred invocations like those in Greece, New York. Americans generally like prayers to solemnize civic occasions from inauguration of the president on down, and politicians naturally go along. Briefs in Greece’s favor were signed by 85 members of the U.S. House and 34 U.S. Senators. Most were Republicans, but the Obama Administration likewise filed in support. Though civic prayers are popular or considered useful to the republic, that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good for the Christian faith. Hold that thought.

Politicians aside, many news reports missed that all 9 Supreme Court justices were favorable toward council prayers. The four liberal dissenters, sounding much like the five majority conservatives, stated that local council meetings need not “be religion- or prayer-free” and that’s because “legislative prayer has a distinctive constitutional warrant by virtue of tradition.” Mainly, the liberals protested because Greece loaded up its lineup of prayer-givers with earnest Christians and made little effort to include religious minorities.

The Constitution’s Bill of Rights begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Though that commands only Congress, the “incorporation” doctrine (which Justice Thomas rejects) extends this to actions by state and local governments.

Traditionalists say the “establishment clause” only forbids a European-style official church. Separationists embrace the Court’s 1947 interpretation that government cannot show favoritism toward either a particular religion or toward religion in general.

In the 67 years since, the Court has nudged the door open and shut, in what Justice Alito called “our often puzzling” series of church-state rulings. In that time the nation’s religious diversity has increased, especially since the 1965 change in immigration law, and foes of religious faith have become more militant. The key rulings on civic prayers:

*Engel v. Vitale (1962): Outlawed public school students’ recitation of the New York State Regents’ brief, non-denominational prayer to “Almighty God” (decided by 8-1).

*Abington v. Schempp (1963): Ordered Pennsylvania (also Maryland in a companion case) to end public students’ recitation of the Lord’s Prayer along with Bible readings (by 8-1).

*Marsh v. Chambers (1983): Ruled that prayers before sessions of Nebraska’s legislature do not violate the “establishment” ban unless they’re designed to “proselytize,” or “advance” or “disparage” a religion (by 6-3).

*Wallace v. Jaffree (1985): Abolished Alabama schools’ minute of silence for student “meditation or prayer” (by 6-3).

*Lee v. Weisman (1991): Decided a Rhode Island rabbi’s junior high graduation prayer was unconstitutional (by 5-4).

*Santa Fe v. Doe (2000): Opposed public-address prayers before Texas football games from clergy chosen by students (by 6-3).

That brings us to the 5-to-4 decision in Greece v. Galloway, which applies the 1983 Marsh case reasoning about state legislatures to town councils.

[Read more...]

This is praise: USA Today church-state story was confusing

Welcome back to the First Amendment wars, an increasingly active front in our nation’s Culture Wars. Yesterday was a big church-state day at the U.S. Supreme Court, with the justices hearing testimony on the Town of Greece v. Galloway — yet another case centering on prayer in public life.

If coverage of this event was not prominently displayed in your local newspaper today, there could be a logical reason for that. Mainstream journalists tend to be pro-First Amendment, but for cultural reasons they may feel conflicted when writing and editing stories about the free speech rights of conservative religious believers.

The bottom line: It’s hard, even for a true liberal, to tolerate the free speech of people that you consider intolerant.

You can see the conflicts pretty clearly in the USA Today report on the testimony and that report followed a pretty solid A1 news feature by the same crew on this topic that ran ahead of the showdown in court.

This is confusing stuff and accurate stories will reflect that reality.

The top of the advance feature was an absolute classic, in the category of ironic anecdotal ledes. Classic.

GREECE, N.Y. – The Rev. Lou Sirianni opened the most recent monthly meeting of the Greece Town Board with a prayer that reached back 239 years.

“Be thou present, O God of wisdom, and direct the councils of this honorable assembly,” he began, quoting from the Rev. Jacob Duche’s invocation before the first Continental Congress in 1774. The prayer ended, “All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Savior.”

Not everyone in Greece — not even everyone at the sparsely attended town board sessions — prays to Jesus or believes in his saving powers. Some don’t pray at all. Many more don’t see a place for it at government meetings.

Thus, the court case. The USA Today team did a fine job, in a small amount of space, of summarizing the previous prayer-wars battles, showing why this topic tends to tie justices in knots. This following passage contains the key word, for those assigned the journalistic task of following the arguments this week in the high court. Can you spot it?

Most state legislatures open their sessions with a prayer, nearly half of them with guidelines. Many county legislatures open meetings with a prayer, according to an informal survey by the National Association of Counties. National data on prayer practices at the city, town and village levels do not exist.

The Supreme Court cracked down on prayer in schools in the 1960s, ruling against Bible readings, the Lord’s Prayer or an official state prayer.

In Lemon v. Kurtzman, a 1971 case involving religion in legislation, the high court devised what became known as the “Lemon test.” Government action, it said, should have a secular purpose, cannot advance or inhibit religion and must avoid too much government entanglement with religion.

Later, the story notes, the court “gave a green light” to legislative prayers that do not advance or attack any particular faith.

That raised a question that loomed over the Town of Greece debates.

[Read more...]


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