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DAVID ROSMAN: Prayer decision divides Supreme Court, and many others

Wednesday, May 7, 2014 | 4:24 p.m. CDT; updated 4:30 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 7, 2014

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.


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Comments

Ellis Smith May 7, 2014 | 6:08 p.m.

Just goes to show that you can never satisfy everyone; some will always be dissatisfied no matter what the situation or ruling might be.

The First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."

And that's ALL it says on that subject, but note that it specifically says "Congress."

Now, let's have a discussion concerning the Tenth Amendment and the systematic and seemingly endless rapes it has endured and apparently must continue to endure.

As I continue to - and WILL continue to - point out, our Constituion is NOT some restaurant menu, where one can happily choose only what he likes while selectively ignoring what he doesn't. It is exactly that attitude that's a cause of our current national squabbles.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 7, 2014 | 9:11 p.m.

"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."
____________________

I would propose that Greece, NY simply NOT have a prayer 12-19% of the time. That's about 1 out of 8 times or 1 out of 5 times, depending upon Rosman's chosen number.

The likes of Rosman would then be represented AND happy.

Right?

Ellis: Rosman is known picker and chooser when it comes to the US Constitution. He likes the "menu" version, but never leaves a good tip.

PS: Does the Columbia City Council have an invocation or prayer? If not, Rosman is represented each and every time.

I'm not, tho. What we gonna do about that, David?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 8, 2014 | 6:00 a.m.

Michael:

I enjoyed your use of percentages. If we're going to have absolute fairness, percentages might well be the solution.

Another possibility regarding fairness would be that all persons who wish to express their views in this newspaper must pay the $5.95 a month or whatever the going tariff might be, columnists NOT to be excluded.

As the old saying goes, it's not a matter of the money but of principle. I spend more than three times that amount a month on ice cream*, and at least twice as much for a 750 ml bottle of California merlot.

*- The story is told about a young woman who, for reasons not stated, decided to leave her home in New Jersey to attend Iowa State University. Neither she nor her family had ever been to the Midwest. When she came home for Thanksgiving, her family and friends were curious as to what Iowans are like. She told them Iowans weren't that different from folks in New Jersey, except that Iowans won't go to bed until they've had their ice cream.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 8, 2014 | 7:36 a.m.

Ellis: We both know that David's concern about representation has nothing to do with representation. David cares little for that; he could receive his representation tomorrow, yet would still not be happy. The argument is a sham designed to provoke an emotion of "I'm left out!" and elicit sympathy and support.

He states that lack of representation is "The problem". No, it's not. The problem is God and the fact that many ignorant folks believe and are not hesitant about saying so, even to the point where believers wish certain state laws reflected at least the core of a stable and religious ethical belief. David does not like the "stable" part, since stability means you can't change your mind on a whim.

You'll note that David is silent about ministers in Jeff City (gasp!) advocating for Medicaid expansion at our state senate. Their advocacy is faith-based (gasp, again!). David is "flexible" like that......

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 8, 2014 | 8:38 a.m.

Michael:

Agreed, but it's the twisting (torturing?) of certain words - the word "fairness," for example - that's particularly bothersome (to me at least).

During the 20th century we were forced to endure that, which in the case of at least two powerful countries lead to monumental disasters. Orwell's fictional treatments of the subject remain a classic, and well they should.

Why must we, our children and grandchildren, be condemned to re-live the 20th century? It makes no sense.

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 8, 2014 | 9:44 a.m.

Ellis and "twisting": I agree, although I personally prefer the word "pretzeling". For me, such a visual concept aptly shows the mental gymnastics a person must go through to arrive at a ludicrous position. David is intellectually inconsistent and a known pretzeler.

It's strange. Dave seems to operate under a "life sucks, and then you die" approach, while others operate with "life sucks, and then you live" approach.

As far as "fairness" goes (i.e., equal outcomes, not equal opportunity), liberals are guilty of the sin of hubris....pridefully thinking "We know how to do it right this time, and we're gonna make it so."

History be damned.

(Report Comment)
Tony Black May 8, 2014 | 10:43 a.m.

You both have one thing right. Some people are never happy.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 8, 2014 | 11:51 a.m.

@ Tony:

No argument here. When you're right, you're right.

Michael: See definition of "tort" (meaning "to twist" or "twisted"). The rich cake of course is spelled differently (ends with an "e").

The cake seems far more appetizing, don't you think? :)

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams May 8, 2014 | 12:22 p.m.

TonyB: "Some people are never happy."
______________

I heartily agree. What's your reason?

(Report Comment)
David Rosman May 8, 2014 | 8:56 p.m.

Ellis and Michael - I just love your little mutual admiration society. But you also seem to be picking and choosing the Amendments you wish to follow. You both seem to have forgotten, purposefully or otherwise, the Fourteenth Amendment which enhances Article Six, Clause 2 of the Constitution. The supremacy clause “establishes that the federal constitution and federal law… take precedence over state laws and even state constitutions.” Law.cornell.edu

I wonder what you would think if for the next month only Islamic prayers were given prior to our city council meetings? The Muslim community is quite large in Columbia and I am sure they would welcome the opportunity.

Yes, I would be happy if there were no prayer prior in any government sanctioned forum, but I know that will not happen now that the court has turned its blind eye towards the heavens.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 9, 2014 | 5:02 a.m.

Perhaps we should ban mutual admiration societies, because they are almost certainly politically incorrect. Almost anything COULD be politically incorrect, depending upon whom is judging its correctness.

Another situation with Rosman seems to be that when he feels his views are actually being challenged, he turns more than just a tad catty.

[From a rather famous and definitely well known Missouri native: "If you can't stand the heat, it's time to get out of the kitchen." - (Then) President Harry S. Truman]

I have consistently stated that we need to consider ALL provisions (the core and all amendments) of our Constitution, and it's OUR (all of us) Constitution: it's NOT Rosman's Constitution, Smith's Constitution, etc.

As for prayer at council meetings, since I no longer live in Columbia I don't believe I should comment on that particular situation, but whatever our city council here decides to do on that issue is fine with me. I'm FAR more interested in their results than their opening ceremonies; from his commentaries lately in this newspaper it appears that George Kennedy and I could agree on that.

We have a Hindu temple here in Polk County (seriously). Reminds me of when I worked in Trinidad, where they even have burning ghats.

BTW I think I may have located a few intellectuals: rumor has it that some Kulaks survived and they and the intellectuals have formed a mutual admiration society. Now we need to find out where that's located. :)

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith May 9, 2014 | 6:43 a.m.

Maybe everyone doesn't know what a burning ghat is. In the Hindu religion, if one can manage to do so, he or she would be cremated on a raised platform on the banks of the sacred Ganges River. Since there are Hindu colonies scattered outside India, and since the Ganges doesn't flow around the world, the best substitute is burning ghats located on the bank of some quiet stream.

Cremation by this method is EXPENSIVE. Special materials are required, and the fire isn't confined to a closed space, as it is in a modern crematorium.

The majority of the citizens of the Republic of Trinidad & Tobago are of families originally arrived (19th century) as indentured servants; most of the rest of the population's ancestors came to Trinidad earlier as African slaves. There are strong Hindu and Moslem congregations, as well as Catholic, Anglican and Presbyterian congregations.

One Christmas I had the experience of attending a Presbyterian outdoor sunrise service, where nearly all present were of (East) Indian ancestry, and a minister of the same ancestry preached the Good News.

Trinidad is a surprising and fascinating place. It's an oil producing nation*, but rather than recovering and shipping petroleum as raw bulk it does its own refining and produces LNG, motor fuel, petrochemicals, etc. (as well as other products, such as glass containers). The Port Lisa industrial complex on the west side of the island is ultra modern. The market is the Caribbean and countries in Central and South America that border on the Caribbean.

Sort of trashes the concept of a sleepy vacation island, doesn't it? The island of Tobago makes up for that.

*- Trinidad has the only other pitch lake besides the one in Southern California (both have the same name). They've been pulling pitch out of the Trinidad lake for more than a century and the lake level does not drop!

(Report Comment)

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