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.