Secularism is the Best Response to Greece v. Galloway

Yesterday a divided Supreme Court ruled that sectarian prayer – even prayer which promotes one religious faith the vast majority of the time, at the expense of people of other religions or none – can be held prior to legislative sessions of government bodies in the USA. I am not a lawyer or a legal scholar, and do not comment from that perspective. Instead I take the perspective of a Humanist activist who cares passionately about the maintenance of a secular society because, in my judgment, secularism provides the best experience for all members of a society by protecting the freedom of religious and nonreligious people to live their lives as they choose, while protecting the government from inappropriate influence of a single religious group.

While in theory this ruling opens the door to all kinds of invocations before legislative sessions, including atheist and Humanist ones, in practice this will result in an influx of  Christian invocations and prayers opening meetings at every conceivable level of government. The nature of these prayers, while controlled somewhat, will potentially be essentially evangelistic. SCOTUSblog reports that, according to the ruling, the prayers “may not cast other faiths or other believers in a sharply negative light” – hardly a strong defense of the principle that no one should have their religious views demeaned when they speak before government – and that even if the prayers are majorly skewed in favor of one religion that is OK. Presumably this means if the prayers cast other faiths or believers in a mildly negative light – and do so time and again such that the majority of the prayers are of that character – that is, according to the Supreme Court, perfectly acceptable. Also acceptable, according to the Court:

  • Prayers which invoke the deities of one faith but not others.
  • Prayers which do not “embrace the beliefs of multiple or all faiths”.
  • A series of prayers in which one faith is overwhelmingly dominant (for instance, 90  Christian prayers and 10 non-Christian ones).

This is not acceptable to me, nor should it be acceptable to anybody who loves freedom of religion. This ruling is bad for everybody - including those Christians who are cheering the result, imagining they can now force their faith into ever more public spaces. By yoking religion to government in this way practitioners of minority faiths and none suffer, as their voices go unheard time and time again as their elected representatives meet to conduct public business. But practitioners of the majority faith also suffer, because when your faith becomes associated with government, government tends to take a greater interest in regulating your faith. Theocracies – opponents of secularism should remember that this is the term for non-secular nations – are not places in which religious freedom thrives even for members of the faith most protected by the government. The protective barrier between church and state protects us all, and it was eroded a little yesterday.

The supporters of this decision have been, as is their wont, extremely disingenuous in their reporting of it. “The American tradition of public #prayer does not violate the Constitution. Americans are free to pray” cries the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative organization which supports the right of Hobby Lobby to control their employees based on the faith of the employers, while pretending they support freedom of religion. Their framing is blatant and misleading: this case was never about “public prayer” in the broad sense, and Americans are “free to pray” in a private capacity any time they choose, including in legislative sessions. What they should not be free to do is impose their beliefs on others repeatedly before meetings of elected governmental bodies, where people of other faiths and none go to make petitions and redress grievances.

The response from the American Humanist Association and the Humanist Society (the organization which trains Humanist celebrants) also strikes me as problematic, however. They have started a website aimed to help nonreligious people offer an invocation, taking advantage of the new ruling to try to ensure that Humanists have greater representation in town halls. The move is swift and canny, and the website is well-resourced with information, including sample Humanist invocations which have been used in he past. Usually, as someone who has participated many times in interfaith settings as a Humanist representative I support injecting Humanism into spaces where religious voices have predominated. Humanist invocations can be inspiring, such as the famous invocation delivered by Rep. Juan Mendez in the Arizona House:

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Here, however, I am trepidatious. Having argued forcefully that the government should not sanction sectarian invocations before governmental bodies, we now run the risk of endorsing exactly such invocations. Some of the invocations featured on the new website are clearly Humanist, and promote the Humanist worldview in a way we find it objectionable when a Christian promotes Christianity in the same setting. To respond to the bad ruling in this case by promoting our own sectarian invocations seems problematic in principle even though it might be wise as a matter of strategic practice (it also opens the door for yet more problematic infringements on secularism as the US changes its notion of what secularism entails).

In contrast, our major national organizations could pull together a group of Humanists and friendly liberal religious allies to oppose the ruling and work at a local level to lobby local governmental bodies to pass legislation which more strictly limits these invocations. This would benefit from being a clearly principled position which sees us working toward a secular goal, rather than capitulating so quickly to a ruling which, in the long run, will serve nobody well. While opposition seems at this point more difficult than going with the flow, it may in the long run be more consistent with our values – and would have the benefit of rebuilding a coalition of religious and nonreligious people who support secularism (a coalition which has diminished in power significantly over the last few decades).

There may be a third option here, though: do both at once. While we mount a broad-based campaign to change the law we can also seek to put forward as many Humanist invokers as we can, to push the issue from both ends. If we are to pursue that strategy, though, we should probably ensure that our invocations are truly secular, and not explicitly Humanist. We can then hold fast to our principles through all our activism on this matter. Secularism is the best response.

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About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. He is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.


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