[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.