06 November 2013
Regulating prayer: Town of Greece v. Galloway
The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today in a suit against the town of Greece NY by two citizens who claim that overtly Christian prayers spoken before government meetings violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. This may look like a classic culture-war conflict, but the Obama Administration, through the Justice Department, has taken the side of the town government. The town reportedly allows any faith group (and even atheists) to lead prayers, and while in practice most prayers are offered by Christians, if not explicitly Christian, the government is satisfied that the prayer policy isn't exclusive or exclusionary. The plaintiffs contend that they should not be required to hear sectarian prayer in order to participate in government. Doing without prayer of any kind apparently isn't an option. With that off the table, the justices question whether they should be in the business of regulating prayer -- whether it should be up to them or another branch of government to determine when prayer is "sectarian" and thus unconstitutional. For most people, it seems, the ideal is a rotation of faiths in which everyone gets a turn. For the plaintiffs, the ideal seems to be an enforceable sectarian neutrality that would permit people to invoke a generic higher power but not to proclaim Jesus as the Messiah, Muhammad as the Seal of the Prophets, etc. Undisputed is the right to assert the existence of a higher power, while those who might begrudge even that are most likely dismissed as too thin-skinned for civil society. Arguably, the right to be offended is at the heart of the case -- or an assumption that the law should shield me from having my intelligence insulted, or from the inferred threat of certain "sectarian" claims. Since no single sect has an exclusive right to deliver opening prayers, Greece can't be said to have established a religion. To argue that the town has simply established religion goes against the tradition that defines establishment as favoring one sect over another -- and in any event there's supposedly an open invitation to atheists to offer an opening meditation, or whatever you'd call such a statement. Again, the issue comes down to the offense or threat felt by the plaintiffs and whether government must respect their feelings as well as the customary right of others to invoke higher powers in public. There may be a temptation to tell the plaintiffs to get over it, to stop being paranoid, but the perceived need to invoke higher powers in public goes too little examined to justify dismissing the complaints of the other side so quickly. Let's not rush to tell the plaintiffs to get over their issues without making lawyers and judges give good reasons why they should.