The New York Times reports that the U.S. Supreme Court agreed today to rule on a case in which a town (Greece, New York) mandated the saying of prayers before every town meeting (a town assembly dealing with local governance). As the Times reports;
For more than a decade starting in 1999, the town board began its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month.” Town officials said that members of all faiths and atheists were welcome to give the opening prayer.
In practice, the federal appeals court in New York said, almost all of the chaplains were Christian.
“A substantial majority of the prayers in the record contained uniquely Christian language,” Judge Guido Calabresi wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel of the court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. “Roughly two-thirds contained references to ‘Jesus Christ,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘Your Son,’ or the ‘Holy Spirit.’”
Two town residents sued, saying the prayers ran afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition of the government establishment of religion. The appeals court agreed. “The town’s prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint,” Judge Calabresi wrote.
In 1983, in Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court upheld the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of opening its legislative sessions with an invocation from a paid Presbyterian minister, saying that such ceremonies were “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”
This case seems like a loser to me; I’m pretty sure the Supreme Court (whose conservative members are not only in a majority, but who are religious) will overturn the lower court decision, allowing prayers. What they may do is simply specify that the prayers need not be Christian prayers, in which case Greece will simply have some watered-down invocations to the deity that don’t mention Jesus. Otherwise that opens the possibility for—God forbid—Jewish or Muslim prayers.
In reality, what the Supreme Court should do is simply get rid of the prayers, which violate the First Amendment. “Historical precedent” of having legislative prayers is no excuse for their continuance, and should be overturned. After all, you can’t begin the school day with prayers, and legislators, like schoolchildren, are a captive audience. The “tradition” defense has always mystified me.
Legislators’ insistence on public and “official” prayer, as opposed to private worship, has always mystified me. Every legislator can pray on his or her own. This is merely an attempt to try to force religion into the government. The harm done thereby is twofold: it starts us down the slippery slope to a theocracy, and it dispossesses those who aren’t either Christian or are believers. There is no upside to these prayers—none. Prayer as a part of governmental business should be eliminated everywhere in this country.
Nevertheless, even Congress has an official chaplain who opens each session of the House of Representatives with a prayer. It’s not likely that Scalia, Thomas, Roberts, and Alito will affirm the lower court decision. They’ll just allow non-secular prayer, which is still a violation of the Constitution.