Should town council prayers have been legalized?

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 4 liberal dissenters, sounding much  like the 5 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. As in the Marsh precedent, the 5 Catholics in the majority relied heavily on the nation’s heritage of civic prayers. They argue that in 1789, only days apart, the first U.S. Congress hired chaplains to deliver prayers at its sessions and approved the “establishment clause,” so such prayers cannot violate the Constitution’s original meaning.

The 4 dissenting justices, however, protested that Greece’s actual practice advanced one religion through a nearly unbroken line of Christian prayer-givers. The town has only Christian congregations and drew names from a Chamber of Commerce guidebook. Critics noted, for instance, that Greece has no synagogues  but does have Jewish residents who worship over the town line in Rochester. (Over the years one Jewish layman, one Baha’i, and one Wiccan delivered invocations.) Some think only non-denominational prayers that omit mention of Jesus should be permitted. But Justice Breyer noted that the federal appeals court didn’t require “blandly nonsectarian” prayers, and the majority warns that such a requirement would entangle the government in unseemly religious censorship.

Separationists are naturally upset. The New York Times ran a typical op-ed by Katherine Stewart, who had assailed the Court’s Good News Club decision that gave “equal access” to school buildings for voluntary religious and non-religious student meetings. Stewart branded that “the Christian Right’s stealth assault on America’s children.” With the go-ahead for Greece’s “blatantly sectarian” prayers, she sees another “assault by the religious right on the establishment clause … under cover of pursuing ‘religious freedom’. ”

Some devout Christians advocate separation alongside Jews, other minorities, and secularists. Methodist Morgan Guyton, who is launching a campus ministry at Tulane University, blogs that Jesus’ most explicit teaching about prayer is skeptical toward public praying and says “when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6:5-6). Guyton believes prayer at government ceremonies means “somebody is hijacking God to baptize their own authority” so that the Deity becomes “the great big yes-man in the clouds who approves my political tribe.”

The Supreme Court ruling and other texts in the Greece case: www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/town-of-greece-v-galloway

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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