The concept of separating church and state, as specified in the Constitution, is straightforward. The state should in no way advance one religion over another nor interfere with an individual’s right to practice his or her religion.
Freedom of – and from – religion is essential to the nation’s greatness.
But it’s not uncommon for public bodies to attempt to circumvent that edict. Many refuse to accept the fact that sectarian prayers before city council meetings, prayer in schools, the posting of the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls are forms of religious coercion.
That has been well established law for decades, ever since prayer in school was barred by the Supreme Court in the ’60s and the so-called “endorsement” standard was established by the court in the ’80s. In the 1980s, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote a set of opinions asserting that government actions violate the First Amendment if they appear to “endorse” religion.
Now, however, a case in Greece, N.Y., headed for the Supreme Court has resurrected the issue, and could end up altering these longstanding legal standards. Unfortunately, the White House has chosen to join congressional Republicans who want to allow city and town councils to open their meetings with a Christian prayer.
Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that the town of Greece had crossed the line and violated the First Amendment’s ban on the “establishment of religion” by inviting a local minister to deliver an opening prayer at the town council’s monthly meeting. Members of the audience were encouraged to join in the prayers.
Two residents, one Jewish and one an atheist, had complained for several years that the prayers were offensive and inappropriate. Until they sued in 2008, only Christians had been invited to lead the prayers.
The appeals court ruled that to “a reasonable observer,” the prayer policy “must be viewed as an endorsement of ... a Christian viewpoint.” That conclusion, we think, is both obvious and indisputable.
Nonetheless, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal this fall. And lawyers for the Obama administration and two groups of Republican lawmakers from the House and Senate separately filed briefs on behalf of the town of Greece asking justices to relax constitutional limits on religious invocations at government meetings.
But such a ruling would not apply only to this case. A decision to allow prayers at public meetings could have wide-ranging implications. For years, conservatives have lobbied to replace the endorsement standard with one saying that local governments and schools may invoke Christianity or other religions so long as no unwilling person is forced to join in.
This case could open the door to adopting such a standard. But that would fly in the face of the long observed presumption that government-endorsed prayer always is coercive, that it discriminates against those present who might have different religious beliefs or no religious beliefs at all, even if they are not forced to recite the prayer.
The clearest illustration of that is the student of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist or other faith who is singled out as “different” or as an object for ostracism because he or she does not join in prayer with classmates. It offends a fundamentally American sense of fairness.
The justification for public prayer often is that this is a “Christian nation.” That isn’t true; both history and the Constitution tell us so.
O’Connor’s endorsement standard doesn’t settle all disputes. Courts have offered widely differing decisions as to how that standard should be applied. For example, should it result in a ban on Christmas nativity scenes in public squares?
But that is no reason to scrap the standard altogether or to blur the line that should separate religious practice and public governance. People have the right to pray – silently – wherever they choose, including city council meetings.But they shouldn’t be allowed to endorse a particular religion or coerce others to pray though the strong arm of the government. It’s unconstitutional and un-American.