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Faith in Values: The Supreme Court Considers Compulsory Prayer

SOURCE: AP/Evan Vucci

Observers stand outside the U.S. Supreme Court on the first day of the 2013–14 term. One of this season's cases deals with government-sanctioned prayer.

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The Supreme Court is hearing a case today about whether the act of opening government meetings with official prayer is constitutional—or if doing so steps on the First Amendment and unlawfully puts the government in the business of promoting religion.

The case—Greece v. Galloway—concerns the monthly board meetings held by the town of Greece in upstate New York. These meetings are where the business of the town is conducted. For example, if someone in Greece wants to get a zoning permit, challenge a development project, or request action on a host of other matters, that person goes to the town board meeting and makes his or her case. The meetings are where public employees take their oaths of office and where citizens receive awards. Local students attend the meetings to get credit for their government class.

Beginning in 1999, however, the town of Greece ordered that its meetings begin with official prayer. Town officials selected a clergy person each month to deliver the prayer. Until the town was sued, every clergy person and prayer were Christian. Some clergy asked the audience to stand with them as they prayed. Their prayers included language such as “in the name of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.” At one meeting, a Catholic priest led those assembled in a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

Actions such as these constitute the problem. To mandate prayer at government meetings, to favor one religion—Christianity—over another, and to pressure those attending a civic meeting to engage in a religious practice that might offend them or violate their conscience mixes religion and government in a way that is harmful to both.

Let’s say you are a nonbeliever who lives in the town of Greece. You go to one of the monthly meetings to get zoning approval from the five-member board to build a ramp at your house so that your elderly disabled mother can live with you. Before you can make your request, however, a Christian minister asks everyone in the audience to bow their heads in prayer. Your conscience tells you not to do that, but you fear that if you don’t, you could jeopardize the zoning approval you need.

To object to government being in the business of religion in this way is not to be anti-religious—quite the contrary. Many of the groups that filed friend-of-the-court briefs with Americans United, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of two local residents, are religious, including the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ. And Americans United is headed by a United Church of Christ minister, Rev. Barry Lynn.

The freedom at stake in this case is often called our First Freedom—that of religious liberty. Those who defend the town prayers claim to be protectors of religious liberty, yet they are ignoring some important facts.

First, these proponents’ definition of religious liberty is incomplete. Proponents give strong weight to the first component of religious liberty, which guarantees the free exercise of religion and gives us the right to worship and pray according to our conscience. But they skip over the second component, which forbids the government from establishing or promoting religion, from favoring one religion over another, or from pressuring citizens into religious observances or practices.

These two components—the free exercise clause and the establishment clause—are codified in the First Amendment. The government violates both when it forces citizens to sit through official prayers before being able to exercise their civic rights and responsibilities.

Second, the prayers uttered by clergy to open the board meetings are not voluntary offerings by private citizens. When a clergy person accepts the invitation to participate in a government meeting, he or she is acting as a representative of the government—and the prayer is part of official town business. As the Baptist Joint Committee says in a podcast on the case, “Prayer at official government meetings clearly mixes the work of government and the work of religion. … We don’t all pray in the same way. We don’t all pray, and having a religious practice integrated into a government meetings is going to cause some problems.”

Third, the official prayers at the meetings discriminated against minority religions, which were virtually invisible in the offerings by Christian clergy. The fact that the town of Greece is filled mostly with churches, rather than synagogues or mosques, does not matter. Religious liberty does not apply to buildings but to individuals and their diverse beliefs.

So if opening board meetings with official prayer violates the First Amendment, what could the town of Greece do instead? Actually, several things. They could start meetings with a moment of silence. Or they could offer nonsectarian prayers from diverse faith traditions. Or they could do away with the opening prayer altogether and just get down to business, which is what they did without a problem before 1999.

Let’s allow the Baptists, who are long-time defenders of religious liberty and individual conscience, to have the last word. “It is not the role of government to engage citizens in prayer or lead religious exercises,” says Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty. “The opportunity to interact with and influence elected officials on civic matters should not be compromised by government-led prayer.”

Sally Steenland is Director of the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. Steenland, a best-selling author, former newspaper columnist, and teacher, explores the role of religion and values in the public sphere.

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This is part of a regular column: Faith in Values

For more from the same column, click here