Goodness, so much has been happening the last couple of weeks. It’s been hard enough keeping up with my own personal writing, so I haven’t had as much time to blog. I’ve started a new job in document control with a construction company, and the learning curve of both a new environment and a new industry has been challenging.
In case you missed it, yesterday morning the United States Supreme Court handed down its ruling on Town of Greece v. Galloway. Spoilers: it didn’t go very well for religious liberty.
Brief summary on the case: From time immemorial, city council meetings in the town of Greece, NY, have opened with prayer. Specifically, Christian prayer. Then Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens sued the town, arguing that the prayers violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled against the town, so the issue that came before the Supreme Court last year, and that they ruled on yesterday, was whether the prayers were constitutional.
And yesterday, the Court decided that the Town of Greece may open each legislative session with a Christian prayer, so long as they make a reasonable effort to reach out to all religious groups within city limits and invite their leaders to open sessions as well.
Justice Elena Kagen wrote the dissenting opinion, beginning with an acknowledgment that our country has a tradition of opening legislative sessions with prayer, and that we also have a diverse religious landscape. “I believe that pluralism and inclusion in a town hall can satisfy the constitutional requirement of neutrality,” she wrote. “Such a forum need not become a religion-free zone… when a citizen stands before her government, whether to perform a service or request a benefit, her religious beliefs do not enter into the picture.”
However, she notes on page 57 that
Greece’s Board did nothing to recognize religious diversity: In arranging for clergy members to open each meeting, 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. So month in and month out for over a decade, prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits. In my view, that practice does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.
By intentionally or unintentionally favoring one religion over all others and forcing a citizen to “make her dissent from the common religious view, and place herself apart from other citizens, as well as from the officials responsible for the invocations,” religion becomes a dividing rather than unifying element.
Kagen again: “When a person goes to court, a polling place, or an immigration proceeding… government officials do not engage in sectarian worship, nor do they ask her to do likewise. They all participate in the business of government not as Christians, Jews, Muslims (and more), but only as Americans.”
Justice Breyer also dissented from the ruling, noteing that “Greece is a predominantly Christian town, but it is not exclusively so,” and that a map of the town “shows a Buddhist temple… and several Jewish synagogues just outside its borders.”
He also noted on page 51 that “during the more than 120 monthly meetings at which prayers were delivered during the record period (from 1999 to 2010), only four prayers were delivered by non-Christians. And all of these occurred in 2008, shortly after the plaintiffs began complaining about the town’s Christian prayer practice and nearly a decade after that practice had commenced.”
Those actions and inactions included (1) a selection process that led to the selection of “clergy almost exclusively from places of worship located within the town’s borders,” despite the likelihood that significant numbers of town residents were members of congregations that gather just outside those borders; (2) a failure to “infor[m] members of the general public that volunteers” would be acceptable prayer givers; and (3) a failure to “infor[m] prayer-givers that invocations were not to be exploited as an effort to convert others to the particular faith of the invocational speaker, nor to disparage any faith or belief different than that of the invocational speaker.”
The decision handed down yesterday by the Court seems to assume that the vast majority of Americans will treat each other with fairness and without prejudice. It assumes that, given a plurality of religious views in a given setting, leadership will take the high ground in making sure that all views are represented.
Which is why, I suppose, in 2007, when Rajan Zed, the first Hindu priest to open a session of the U.S. Senate, began his invocation, three protesters immediately interrupted him.
Lord Jesus, forgive us for allowing a prayer of the wicked, which is an abomination in your sight. This is an abomination. We shall have no other gods before You. Lord Jesus, have mercy on our nation for allowing this abomination, this idolatry, for violating the First Commandment, ‘Thou shalt have no other gods before me.’ God forgive our nation!
The first man was taken out, loudly quoting Bible verses as he was dragged from the chamber. Another shouted, “Father, forgive us for betraying your Son Jesus!” before she, too, was escorted out. As they left, they shouted directly at Zed, “No Lord but Jesus Christ!” and “There’s only one true God!”
According to the Wikipedia page on the incident, the protesters were there “to lobby against a hate-crimes bill that would extend certain protections to gay people.”
The fact is, religion isn’t going anywhere for a long time. I’m willing to work with religious people to find ways to live together peaceably. And a vast number of religious people are happy to do the same.
It’s a vocal minority (fundamentalist Christians, mostly), however, who refuses to come to the table and is resisting change and stirring things up. How are we supposed to work together when they won’t even budge?