The Supreme Court on Monday struck a blow in favor of a centuries old American tradition of saying a prayer before a public meeting.
In a closely watched decision, the court ruled 5-4 that the town of Greece, N.Y. did not violate the Constitution’s ban on government endorsement of religion by allowing Christian prayers to be delivered before its monthly meetings.
The court held that just because a prayer offered before a public meeting may be based on one religion or another, it does not automatically violate the U.S. Constitution so long as no religion is advanced or disparaged, and residents aren’t coerced.
The court rejected the idea that official invocations should be limited to “nonsectarian” references, such as the “Almighty” or “Heavenly Father.” Rather, the court said it is OK if the name of Jesus Christ or some other deity is used so long as no one is forced to join in saying the prayer.
The ruling affirms legal precedent and our nation’s heritage.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the conservative majority, said these kinds of prayers should be evaluated against the backdrop of historical practice where ceremonial prayers have long been used in public settings.
He argued that reasonable people understand that the purposes of these types of prayers are to lend gravity to public proceedings and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many of our citizens — not to proselytize or convert them to a specific faith.
“As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God Save the United States and This Honorable Court’ at the opening of this court’s session.”
Perhaps the most prescient thing Kennedy said is that those who don’t like the prayer or who “feel excluded or disrespected” by such religious invocations could simply ignore them — just as we ignore other speech that annoys or irritates us.
Some are already overreacting to the court’s ruling saying it undermines separation between church and state. They fear a slippery slope leading to a day when our government will endorse a specific religion over another.
We don’t see it that way nor do we feel the majority of people in this area or, indeed, the country see it that way.
A careful reading of the opinion shows Kennedy strikes a careful, limited balance between what is acceptable and what isn’t in terms of these types of prayers.
This isn’t the end of the public prayer debate. But at least going forward, the ruling offers some guidance to local government entities as to what is permissible. That’s worth something. For the last three decades we have debated and litigated who get to pray — and what they can say.
The Supreme Court’s decision comes two years after Franklin County was sued by an anonymous plaintiff who objected to the county commission’s practice of saying prayers before its meetings.
The lawsuit was eventually dropped after the commission changed its policy but not before it became a major distraction and a colossal waste of time.
The commission was baited into introducing prayers before its meeting by a longtime critic who was using the issue as a campaign prop. Moreover, the commission fumbled the issue by not having a firm policy when it began the practice.
But we never viewed the prayers that were the basis of the complaint as objectionable. They may not have been elegant or graceful, but they were never coercive. We believe the commission’s current policy passes constitutional muster.
Going forward, if you don’t like the prayers, don’t listen to them.