Commentary

What about those of other faiths?

May 8, 2014 

This week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court on public prayer is an oxymoron of sorts: Forcing non-Christians to listen to Christian prayers at the beginning of town hall meetings is un-Christian by nature.

But that apparently doesn’t concern the five-member majority that approved such prayers. The majority opinion explicitly states that, except for prayers that “threaten damnation, or preach conversion,” sectarian prayers at public gatherings are entirely permissible.

Why? Because the practice is “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the majority opinion.”

In other words, it’s OK because we always have done it that way. Even if those who aren’t members of the majority religion might be offended and made to feel like outsiders.

The case that prompted the ruling involves Greece, a town of nearly 100,000 near Rochester N.Y. Greece has opened its monthly town board meetings since 1999 with prayers, nearly all of which were delivered by local Christian clergy or volunteers.

During the first nine years, every one of those prayers was a Christian prayer, often specifically invoking Jesus and the resurrection. After two residents – one a Jew, the other an atheist – sued in 2008, the town decided to invite those of other faiths, including a Wiccan priestess, to offer a prayer at the beginning of the meeting.

But the lawsuit proceeded, and an appellate court ruled last year that the pre-meeting prayer could be “viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint.” But that was reversed by Monday’s high-court ruling that a brief acknowledgment of belief in a higher power is appropriate as long as we respect those of other beliefs.

“The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion,” wrote Kennedy.

Well, what is it then? The ruling seems to both trivialize prayer and the way it might affect those of different faiths – or no faith at all. If prayer essentially is nothing but a trivial ceremony, why bother?

Justice Elena Kagen, writing the dissent, conceded that legislative prayer has a long tradition, including prayers dating back to the first session of Congress. But she pointed out that a ceremonial opening prayer for a body of elected officials, such as Congress or a state legislature, is different from a town-hall prayer involving ordinary citizens interacting with their local government.

Kagen‘s dissent also asserted that the effect these prayers had on non-Christians over nine years was not necessarily always benign.

“No one can fairly read the prayers from Greece’s town meetings as anything other than explicitly Christian – constantly and exclusively so. The prayers betray no understanding that the American community is today, as it long has been, a rich mosaic of religious faiths.”

Americans pride themselves on the fact that this is a nation of religious tolerance and freedom. That is such an integral part of the American character that it is embedded in the Constitution in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which forbids the state from favoring one set of religious beliefs over another.

This Supreme Court ruling seems to ignore the principle of religious neutrality, inviting more pointedly sectarian “prayer opportunities” (a phrase used by Kennedy in his opinion) at more public functions. And those who don’t want to join in have little recourse other than to sit there quietly or leave.

The fact that the five justices who comprise the majority in this ruling also are adherents to the majority religion might have nothing to do with their decision. Nonetheless, the decision showed no empathy with those who aren’t in that comfortable majority.

As the crack in the wall separating church from state widens, apparently the majority rules.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached at 329-4081 or, by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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