Forced Faith

Do you think the notion of “majority rules” should apply to who gets to utter public prayer and what kind of prayer is uttered?

We don’t. We thought the First Amendment’s Establish-ment Clause was specifically intended to preclude such results.

Apparently, however, the U.S. Supreme Court does. On Monday, the Court ruled in favor of the town of Greece, N.Y., which allowed a prayer before its public meetings from a “chaplain of the month.”

The trouble, however, is that although the practice is open to those of all faiths or none, virtually all of the chaplains were Christian. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit struck down the practice, saying, “Roughly two-thirds (of the prayers) contained references to ‘Jesus Christ,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘Your Son’ or the ‘Holy Spirit.’ ”

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The Supreme Court, on the other hand, bought the town’s argument. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority, indicated that “ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond that authority of government to alter or define.”

This approach was strongly rebutted by dissenter Elana Kagan, who noted the “First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share of her government.”

Kagan’s opposition points up several difficulties of allowing even a practice that is neutral according to its stated rules.

First, there is no assurance that the prayers that are permitted are representative of religious (or nonreligious) diversity in a community. Do we know for a fact that those who embrace Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Unitarianism, atheism or lesser known practices will get the same opportunity to present?

Second, the emphasis on majority-centric prayer underscores the dangers of a bully pulpit. In this particular case, if the town is Christian-dominated, perhaps the majority is quite willing to suppress the minorities holding other religious, ethical or moral viewpoints.

But what of a town that isn’t populated by a Christian majority? Would it be fine with Christians who represent a minority in a jurisdiction if Muslims got the predominant share of the public prayer opportunities? Given the amount of Islamophobia that’s been exhibited in this country, especially since 9/11, we daresay that outcome might not be peaceful or pleasant.

Or what if the conflict was purely intra-Christian? If Protestants shut out Catholics, or Catholics excluded Lutherans? This would be equally damaging to the ability of citizens to practice the religion of their choice.

Once a jurisdiction blesses (pun intended) one religious belief over another, it sets a tone and expectation of a favored theological view. This was one of the reasons why America’s early settlers came here – the Church and State of England were so inextricably linked that it proved perilous to those who weren’t in the fold. 

We have those origins to thank for the kids-favorite spelling word “antidisestablishmentarianism,” referring to those who don’t think religious life should be segregated from public life.

But we do. These are not idle, hypothetical considerations. We’ve seen thousands of examples of jurisdictions, particularly school districts, attempting to impose particular religious views upon their constituents or utilize religious factors to influence public financing.

It is very interesting that the same Supreme Court majority in this case seems ready to provide relief to Hobby Lobby for its claim of government interference with its owners’ religious beliefs. If a business that hires from all religions and has no overtly religious purpose is somehow protected from the government’s need to enforce consistent practices for health care, why is the Roberts Court so accepting of local agencies that allow one faith to foist its dominance over another? It’s both perplexing and, we think, misguided.

No good comes of a public policy or practice that gives an advantage, either in words or in application, to one religious belief or group over another. Justice Kennedy and his majority peers are being ostrichlike by pretending that the practice in Greece, N.Y., is fair simply because it says on its face that it is. A simple review of the practice in its application shows that it isn’t.