In what I think is a bit of a surprise, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that opening a town council meeting with prayer doesn’t violate the First Amendment. According to AP:
Prayers that open town council meetings do not violate the Constitution even if they routinely stress Christianity, a divided Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The court said in 5-4 decision that the content of the prayers is not significant as long as they do not denigrate non-Christians or proselytize.
The ruling by the court’s conservative majority was a victory for the town of Greece, N.Y., outside of Rochester. The Obama administration sided with the town.
In 1983, the court upheld an opening prayer in the Nebraska legislature and said that prayer is part of the nation’s fabric, not a violation of the First Amendment. Monday’s ruling was consistent with the earlier one.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the prayers are ceremonial and in keeping with the nation’s traditions.
“The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers,” Kennedy said.
Personally, I’ve never cared about this issue one way or the other. I’ve done prayers for town council meetings, always praying in the name of Jesus because I considered it to be my prayer for the council, rather than the representative act that a pastor does on behalf of a congregation. (I would also use the first rather than third person pronoun, which I never do at church gatherings.) I am quite certain that there was no intent on the part of the Framers to bar this practice, if for no other reason than that Congress did it from the beginning, and it would have made no sense to think that Congress could do it when state or city legislatures couldn’t–the First Amendment was originally a bar on congressional action, after all, not state or local. But I don’t think the fate of the republic, or religious freedom, is at stake regardless of whether prayer is permitted at such gatherings or not. In fact, while the state may not be effected, one could argue that generic civil religion has done more to damage Christianity in America than any secularizing tendencies.
At the same time, I have to admit that the prospect of heads exploding at the ACLU or American United for the Separation of Church and State over this gives me a certain glee.
UPDATE: Right on schedule, Americans United bellows out its disapproval:
Today, in a disappointing 5-4 decision, the high court ruled that opening prayers at town council meetings do not violate the Constitution, even if they routinely promote Christianity. The court said that the content of the prayers is not significant as long as they do not denigrate non-Christians or proselytize.
This ruling is out of step with the realities of modern-day America. In a country where pluralism and diversity are expanding every day, a Supreme Court decision that gives the green light to ‘majority-rules’ prayer at local government is exactly what we don’t need.
Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens are disappointed as well. This morning, AU’s lead attorney in the case, Ayesha Khan, spoke with both plaintiffs. Susan said, “I’m very disappointed that the Supreme Court chose to ignore the rights of millions of Americans who don’t wish to be subjected to sectarian prayers before government meetings.” Linda added, “Government is supposed to represent everyone, not just those who believe in God. I’m deeply saddened, but so thankful that AU was by our side every step of the way.”