Last week the Supreme Court of the United States issued its opinion in the case of Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway. You may recall that this town council opened its monthly meetings with prayers offered by local pastors. These prayers were Christian, often referring to Jesus Christ as Lord.
An atheist and a Jew were upset, claiming they got their feelings hurt by these prayers. In their own words, they "found the prayers offensive, intolerable and an affront to a diverse community." Now that is an amazing assertion in and of itself, (that prayers to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ are offensive, intolerable and an affront to a community), but amazing also that when you get your feelings hurt by a prayer that is prayed to Jesus Christ in our land today you can make it into a law suit and astonishingly take it all the way to the Supreme Court.
The opinion of the court is being hailed as a victory by many Christian organizations, and I can understand why they might think so for on the surface that appears to be the case. The positive outcome is that legislative bodies that open in prayer can pray in the name of Jesus, such as our friends, the Commissioners of Carroll County. I would agree that is a good thing. However, I took the time to read from the opinion this week and looking at the details of this opinion gives me pause.
This decision is a powerful one. The Court affirmed the following:
Christian prayers at the start of local council meetings are in line with long national traditions. The majority of the justices further opined that the intended audience is not "the public, but lawmakers themselves." Public prayer does not violate the Constitution even if the prayers routinely stress Christianity.
Justice Anthony Kennedy said that forcing clergy to scrub their prayers of references to Jesus Christ and other sectarian religious figures would turn officials into censors, but consider the language used by Justice Kennedy:
"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."
"The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose," Justice Kennedy added. "It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion."
So as long as prayer is part of some ceremonial aspect of a meeting, has a long tradition and doesn't in anyway exclude or coerce non-believers, it is acceptable according to the Court. Notice what has been done. If you're at the beach and you take a stick and draw a circle in the sand, how permanent is that circle? The court has said that some prayers are permissible, they are inside the circle. Other prayers are outside the circle.
You'll remember at the beach two things can happen to your circle in the sand. On a windy day, those grains of sand in the course of time are going to be moved and your line in the sand will be erased. And if not the wind doing so slowly, just wait till the tide comes in, it will be erased instantly. So the Court has drawn a circle in the sand that you can be certain is to be changed over time. Indeed the Court has advanced its own agenda in this opinion in that it now has a new role in society – determining which prayers prayed at public meetings are impermissible, which are not part of some ceremonial aspect of a meeting, which had not been a long tradition and prayers which do not in any way exclude or coerce non-believers.
What really is at question is the role of Christianity in our society. Does it deserve a special place of honor and encouragement? The Court has said no. In that same opinion, part of the reason the Town of Greece was successful in this case, they allowed people of all persuasions, even a wiccan (that is an avowed worshipper of Lucifer) to offer a "prayer" at the public meeting. What would a prayer like that be? How would it even start? Perhaps, "Oh infernal, diabolical hound from hell hear us…." What is even more amazing is that the Town Council said they would allow an atheist to offer the invocation as well. The Supreme Court took note that the town council was all inclusive!
Does it make a difference if Christianity is simply one among a pantheon of religions in America? That it holds no special place in our land? Well the Founders of this country had a decidedly different view from the current Supreme Court that rendered the opinion in Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway.