High court goes back to roots

By Patricia Kasten | The Compass | May 7, 2014

I recently attended a local city council meeting. First, we stood for the Pledge of Allegiance. Then a prayer was offered.

Wow, prayer at a government meeting, I thought. It even mentioned Jesus. Double wow.

I was a little surprised no one objected.

Doesn’t it seem that prayer in a government setting is guaranteed to draw fire? Somebody will claim they shouldn’t have to take part. It often seems that prayer, of any sort, is being forced out of the public forum.

Well, not according to the Supreme Court. In fact, the court said that prayer can even be good in a government setting.

Plaintiffs in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case argued before the court last fall and decided on May 5, objected to prayer at a town board meeting and said it violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.

“Respondents claim that the prayers gave them offense and made them feel excluded and disrespected,” Justice Anthony Kennedy responded, writing the court’s 5-4 majority decision. “But offense does not equate to coercion.”

Also, Kennedy added, opening a town meeting with prayer “does not violate the First Amendment” and is not “the relic of a time when our nation was less pluralistic than it is today” … and, instead, can offer “values that count as universal and that are embodied not only in religious traditions, but in our founding documents and laws.”

In other words, the court said prayer at a town meeting can be good. Wow.

Since 1999, Greece, N.Y., — about the size of Appleton — has opened monthly council meetings with prayer. They invite local clergy, and even lay people who work at churches, to be honorary “chaplains of the month.” Chaplains write and offer the opening prayer.

Two residents, one Jewish and another atheist, protested that prayer at the meetings amounted to forcing them to pray. Not only that, they said it endorsed Christian prayer, since most of the chaplains were Christian.

So, it turns out, is most of the town, as Kennedy noted. Honorary chaplains were chosen from the local directory and most of the churches in town are indeed Christian. In response to the complaint, the town board tried to broaden its prayer offerings, even allowing a Wiccan priestess to lead the prayer once.

That did not satisfy the plaintiffs. Their 2008 suit worked its way through the system and landed on the Supreme Court’s docket. In its May 5 decision, the Supreme Court’s decision made several interesting points:

It noted that, since 1789, when the U.S. Congress hired (as in paid) its first chaplain, prayer before a government body has been viewed as good. Today, the Senate and House still have paid chaplains who “connect them to a tradition dating to the time of the framers.”

While prayer begins Greece’s meetings, that prayer is not truly a public event, but something for the good of the legislators as private citizens. The prayer is also part of the town’s ceremonial function, which is not the same as its legislative function. Ceremonial moments have more latitude.

Unlike other court decisions involving issues like prayer at a graduation, no one was forced by the town’s circumstances to pray. People could come and go as they pleased in order to avoid the meeting’s prayer.

It also noted that, as adults, all of us, “often encounter speech that (we) find disagreeable” and the U.S. Constitution is not violated “anytime a person experiences a sense of affront.”

Finally, came — double wow — an endorsement of prayer: “While these prayers (at government functions) vary in their degree of religiosity, they often seek peace for the nation, wisdom for its lawmakers and justice for its people, values that count as universal and that are embodied … in our founding documents and laws.”

So Greece, N.Y., can go back to praying at meetings, which is for their own benefit.

And the rest of us don’t have to cringe if we attend a public meeting where prayer is offered. That can only benefit everyone.

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