The U.S. Supreme Court has spoken, and many, including myself, are sorely disappointed at the decision to allow Christian prayers at city council and other public meetings — a decision that appears to split along political lines.
The question that came before the court concerned the very first sentence in the very first amendment to our Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
The town of Greece, N.Y., as with many municipal venues, began meetings with a religious invocation. Clergy from religious institutions in the city of 96,000 were invited to give a prayer to help "place town board members in a solemn and deliberative frame of mind, invoke divine guidance in town affairs and follow a tradition practiced by Congress and dozens of state legislatures."
The history of prayer in open legislative sessions is not new. One of the first acts of the first Congress was to "appoint and pay official chaplains shortly after approving language for the First Amendment."
Although times were different then, the idea of invoking divine guidance has become a widely held tradition.
The town of Greece invited only Christian clergy until a lawsuit was filed. That prompted them to give recognition to various religious communities in the city. They began to include Jewish and Baha'i clergy, as well as a representative of the Wiccan community, for the county board's "chaplain of the month."
The problem arose when two citizens complained that too many of the prayers invoked the name of Jesus. One of the complainants found the Christian prayers "offensive," "intolerable" and an affront to a "diverse community." The remedy was to use the more generic reference, "God," rather than the Christian-specific "Jesus."
There are many ways the court could have decided this case, but the majority seemed to ask whether prayer "amounts to impermissible proselytizing." In fact, the language used in the prayers — "Let us pray," for example — could be construed as a prayer that included everyone attending a meeting.
The high court decided that what was happening in Greece and other communities throughout the United States was not proselytizing, but following a long-held national tradition. It found, in part, that "insistence on nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer outlined in the court's cases."
The court held that prayer, therefore, was acceptable and proper in the format in which it was presented to the public, that it was not proselytizing and was not meant to persuade those in attendance to convert to any religious persuasion.
A large number of organizations support the position of the court, but an equal number do not. The latter includes the Interfaith Alliance, The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
These and others see the ruling as undermining the basic tenet of the First Amendment's separation of church and state.
Here I agree with the minority opinion penned by Justice Elena Kagan who wrote, the town "never sought (except briefly when this suit was filed) to involve, accommodate, or in any way reach out to adherents of non-Christian religions."
We must be very careful with interpreting the majority and dissenting opinions of the court. Neither says that government is free to promote any one religious point of view to the point of favoring a specific religious sect, be it Christian or Jewish or, in the case of Greece, Wiccan; that such prayers need to include Muslims, Sikhs and other minority faiths that may be represented in the community; and that a government body may also have to place restrictions on such invocations, as done in the U.S. House of Representatives.
The problem is that between 12 percent and 19 percent of Americans who identify themselves as non-believers or of no religion, the "nones," are still not represented.
Here I agree with Edwina Rogers, the executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, who wrote, "Our founders went to great lengths to ensure that no American would be disenfranchised from civic participation due to their personal religious beliefs or lack thereof. This ruling violates the founding secular principles our country was built on."
David Rosman is an editor, writer, professional speaker and college instructor in communications, ethics, business and politics. You can read more of David’s commentaries at ColumbiaMissourian.com and InkandVoice.com and New York Journal of Books.com.