Amanda Knief, superstar spokesperson for American Atheists, went on CNN yesterday to talk about the prayer case from Greece, NY that’s going to the Supreme Court. For those of you not following that case, here’s a quick rundown:
The case being argued at the court Wednesday involves prayers said at the start of town council meetings in Greece, N.Y., a Rochester suburb. It is the court’s first legislative prayer case since 1983, when the justices said that an opening prayer is part of the nation’s fabric and not a violation of the First Amendment.
But the federal appeals court in New York held that the town crossed a line and violated the Constitution by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers that stressed Christianity.
So Amanda went on CNN across from megachurch pastor Richard Jeffress. Jeffress, of course, thinks opening a governmental function with a sectarian prayer somehow doesn’t qualify as government endorsement. Amanda, a lawyer herself, has the facts straight, but that doesn’t dissuade Jeffress:
Where to even begin? Jeffress opens by saying that the Obama administration supports the city of Greece, along with half the states and 85 Congressmen. The reply? So fucking what. It doesn’t matter how many people want to break the law, they don’t get to do it. If every single member of Congress thought a town should be allowed to segregate its schools, too bad. It remains illegal until legislation alters the laws. It is for situations like this that the phrase “tyranny of the majority” exists, and it is also why supermajority rules and Constitutional limits on the powers of legislative bodies were crafted.
This is also why the founders of America (even most of the Christian ones) knew, and as the courts have ruled, that the only way to achieve religious liberty is to keep church and state separate. If the most popular religion were to ascend to power, they could then exert their power over the minority religions. Christians could (and have tried to) give themselves every single advantage not afforded to other faiths. If Christians were a minority religion, they’d see the danger of religious influence on governance. But they’re the majority and often have a difficult time empathizing with believers of other faiths, so on they charge.
Jeffress then continues with “The real issue is what role should the government play in regulating the content of prayers, and the answer is none according to the Constitution.” Wrong! If the government were trying to regulate the prayers of private citizens, then I’d actually be on Jeffress’ side. But this isn’t happening. The government isn’t going into churches and telling people how they can or cannot pray. What the courts have done is say that government bodies (which are not people with individual rights) cannot endorse (or demean) religion. So, for instance, a public school teacher cannot tell her children that Jesus is Lord or that Allah is the one true god and Muhammad was his only prophet. That same teacher cannot tell her students that god doesn’t not exist. This is what neutrality looks like.
By the same logic a city counsel, which is obligated to represent all its citizens equally, cannot endorse one religion over another. By opening meetings with a Christian prayer, and even paying Christian leaders to give them, they have done just that (a public school could never get away with such a thing). So when the government is praying, if it’s endorsing one religion over another, it is very much the role of the courts and other legislative bodies to regulate it. What’s the point of having laws like religious neutrality in government if the agencies charged with enforcing our laws don’t do just that?
So we’re two points in and Jeffress is already on board the struggle bus. He’s citing the Constitution, trying to argue on semantics. In doing so, and what never got brought up, is that Jeffress is implying that he knows better than virtually every judge and legal scholar throughout history. As I’ve written before:
There is realistically no denying that the Supreme Court has the authority to make that call, so that’s the way it is. Of course the theocrats will say the SCOTUS made the wrong call, but no reasonable person is really going to accept the judgment of “truck stop lawyers” over decades of decisions by people whose lives are spent marinating in and studying constitutional law and whose decisions are based on decades of established precedents. If the Separation clause is illegal, the federal judiciary must have been mistaken all these years, and still is.
They are the referees who have the authority to make the call, and they have clearly made the call for separation. Entertaining as the theocrat’s arguments against the Separation clause may be, they are scarcely new. By now they’ve failed to convince generation after generation of American judges.
People who aren’t well-educated or very bright will believe people like Richard Jeffress know more about applicable legal historical context than generations of Supreme Court justices, but no objective on-looker will buy that story. Jeffress can harp all he wants about what the Constitution demands (and he will, and he’ll say it’s the opposite of what the actual legal experts have determined), but the experts are the ultimate arbiters, not megapastors who think the government should be evangelizing their religion.
Jeffress then points out that the Supreme Court has already established legislative prayers, and he’s right. But what he doesn’t tell you is that those prayers must be non-sectarian so as to not establish one religion over another. That’s not what the city of Greece was doing. That’s like saying the law has established that driving is legal once you’re licensed to defend somebody driving on the wrong side of the road. It’s very misleading and intentionally so.
Jerffers then says “It’s about protecting religious liberty, not restricting religious liberty by muzzling the content of prayers.” It is not your religious right to have the government paying pastors to offer explicitly Christian prayers at government functions. It is the right of every citizen, in the interest of protecting religious liberty for everybody, to have a government that does not favor one religion over another. That is the issue in Greece. Jeffress would have us believe that he’s fighting for religious liberty by fighting for purely Christian prayer by representatives of every citizen in government functions (including the non-believers and faithful of other religions). This makes about as much sense as busking for racial equality by fighting for segregated water fountains.
The rest of it is just Jeffress trying to talk over Amanda while regurgitating the same lame talking points. Good job Amanda being classy and not letting Jeffress get away with the lie that other faiths were represented in Greece. She also didn’t let him get away with “90% of the residents of Greece are Christians”. So fucking what? What’s the threshold where Christians are allowed to break the law with impunity? Are they bound by the law when they’re only 80% of the population, but not at 90%? And what laws do they get to break? Can they start stealing along with violating the separation of church and state? Yeah, Jeffress if fighting for religious equality. “We’re most of the population, so we should get to do this”. When you’re arguing that you should get to do something because you’re the majority, you’re implying that minorities shouldn’t. Demanding special privilege for your majority status is the very antithesis of equality.
Amanda Knief is a god damn hero.
A commenter on my facebook said:
Dear Mr. Jeffers: the Founding Fathers were slave-owning racists. Their principles are things to build *over*.