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.


Anonymous said...

I wonder how they would feel if a satanist got up and said a prayer? Perhaps the "christians" among them need to be reminded of what Jesus himself instructed his followers regarding public prayer.
Matthew 6:5-7 tells us:
5. And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites; for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
7 But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen; for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.

Samuel Wilson said...

Actually, the interests of satanists were addressed during the oral arguments. One of the lawyers asserted that prayers could be allowed as long as they were phrased to be as inclusive as possible, offering as an example a prayer to "the almighty." Justice Scalia asked whether satanists would be satisfied with that, and the lawyer answered that if they believe Satan to be almighty they should be. Amazing that the highest court of the land has to deal with this stuff.

Anonymous said...

It would be interesting, therefore, to send a Thelemite to recite Crowley's "Invocation to Pan" just to gauge their reactions.

hobbyfan said...

Which begs to ask if public prayer should be considered protected speech? If the jackasses from Westboro Baptist in Kansas can get away with it.....!

As for the two lost souls who raised a stink, well, they hadn't anything better to do......