The Supreme Court and Deity-Specific Prayers

The Supreme Court and Deity-Specific Prayers November 12, 2013

Last week the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case concerning the constitutionality of uttering Jesus’s name in prayers at public meetings. As I wrote in earlier coverage for WORLD Magazine, the town of Greece (N.Y.) attempted to accommodate pressure from secularists to make the town board’s prayers non-sectarian by recruiting non-Christian clerics to offer some of those prayers. They did occasionally find non-Christians, including a Wiccan priestess, to recite a prayer or two, but most of the prayers remained at least vaguely Christian, sometimes concluding with the phrase “in Jesus’s name.” Predictably, secularists sued the town for violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

As the ever-insightful Richard Garnett (Notre Dame Law School) wrote for CNN, the court seems likely to affirm the right of municipalities to open public meetings with prayer, especially if the board in question tries to keep prayers non-specific, or if they try to recruit clergy of a variety of faiths. The Obama administration, which has an abysmal record on religious liberty issues, somewhat surprisingly defended the town of Greece. Even liberal justice Elena Kagan suggested that the court might be reluctant to issue an iron-clad ruling that would ban any and all prayers at government meetings.

Garnett notes that [Kagan] emphasized how important it is to “maintain a multireligious society in a peaceful and harmonious way” and then added, “every time the court gets involved in things like this, it seems to make the problem worse rather than better.” Amen, Justice Kagan – may she follow through on this sentiment, which indicates that the court might consider the value of local flexibility on religious liberty. Might there be some room for different practices of prayer in Greece, New York, from those (or the absence of those) in, say, Seattle?

A couple of cautionary notes, however, especially for those I often call my fellow “paleo evangelicals.” First, as I have written before at Patheos, a prayer’s constitutionality, and its propriety, are different issues. Surely we do not want to use prayer as a political tool at a town assembly. Nor do we want to spend a lot of political capital defending the civil-religious pabulum (“Oh great Deity, whose attributes we cannot name; thank you for our blessings as Americans…”) that often suffices as “non-sectarian” prayers at public meetings. But yes, we should get nervous when courts start forbidding specific religious words or names from public utterance. That is a threat both to religious liberty and to free speech.

Second, while we may commend the Obama administration for defending the town of Greece’s prayers, we should remember that it has taken the wrong position on more important religious liberty issues, such as forcing religious people and agencies to provide abortifacient and contraceptive coverage under the HHS Mandate. The Justice Department also adopted an incredibly radical stance against the employment rights of churches and religious organizations in the Hosanna-Tabor Supreme Court case, a position which exceeded even that of secularist groups like the ACLU. Thankfully, the Justice Department’s view was entirely repudiated by the Supreme Court in their 9-0 decision in favor of the Hosanna-Tabor Lutheran Church’s school in 2012.

So yes, paleo evangelicals and our fellow travelers will insist upon the constitutionality of uttering Jesus’s name in public meetings. But if we only win the right to say non-sectarian prayers that are more specific about America than the Deity, while more fundamental religious liberties are lost, we won’t have accomplished much.

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  • A thoughtful, balanced approach, I believe. Well said, Thomas!

  • Sven2547

    But yes, we should get nervous when courts start forbidding specific religious words or names from public utterance. That is a threat both to religious liberty and to free speech.

    There is a crucial distinction to be made here, the distinction that is the crux of this case: this is not merely a case of a private or even a public individual praying to whomever God they wish (which is a guaranteed right). The issue is whether a sectarian prayer can be part of a government procedure or agenda. The invocation made by the Greece City Council is not just a collection of people praying, it is an official act of government. I’m trying to imagine your outrage if government officially did something Islamic.

    I argue that the position more dangerous to religious liberty is the position the Evangelical Right is taking. The more you intermingle government and religion, the more power you give government to influence religious thought and action, and nobody (should) want that.

    I end with the thoughts of Gary Christenot, an evangelical Christian who moved to a majority-Buddhist town in Hawaii, and who was made uncomfortable by the decidedly non-Christian prayers recited by his son’s football team before games. He concludes his editorial, “Why I’m against pre-game prayers” as such:

    I would say in love to my Christian brothers and sisters, before you yearn for the imposition of prayer and similar rituals in your public schools, you might consider attending a football game at Wahiawa High School. Because unless you’re ready to endure the unwilling exposure of yourself and your children to those beliefs and practices that your own faith forswears, you have no right to insist that others sit in silence and complicity while you do the same to them. I, for one, slept better at night knowing that because Judeo-Christian prayers were not being offered at my children’s schools, I didn’t have to worry about them being confronted with Buddhist, Shinto, Wiccan, Satanic or any other prayer ritual I might find offensive.

  • Thomas Kidd

    thank you Gary!

  • John Turner

    Enjoyed this post, partly because I grew up on the other side of Rochester, NY, from Greece. I didn’t even know this was an issue in the Rochester area.

    It seems to me that you can either have no prayers or prayers with content that will bother people. You can’t have prayers everyone will like, and you certainly can’t ban Jesus’s name from prayers if prayers in such settings are generally constitutional.

  • John C. Gardner

    This is a cogent e-mail that warns each of us to be aware of the status of religious freedom in our country. This freedom must of course be protected for all of us. It is a freedom that both John Leland and Roger Williams supported and that should be supported by all orthodox Christians. We must witness for Christ and also not be involved in hysterics about so called persecutions in our country(especially when compared with our brothers and sisters in Christ in the third world).However, we also must be alert to potential violations of our rights under the First Amendment. Thank you for this informative post.

  • Y. A. Warren

    Moments of silence are most needed in our society. At those times, we are all free to “say” whatever we want to whomever we want. I often see prayer as a way to shun other people by making them feel like “others.”

  • Deanjay1961

    There’s nothing like being a member of a minority faith (or none) and having a zoning dispute with your Christian neighbor at a meeting that starts off by making it clear how great the officials presiding think it is to be a Christian.