The Supreme Court recently ruled that the town of Greece, N.Y. was not violating the First Amendment rights of its citizens by conducting prayers before town hall meetings. This was a 5-4 decision along political lines that no one will find surprising (hint of the day: the conservatives were the five who voted in favor of the town of Greece). The case was originally brought against the town by two women – an atheist and a Jew – who claimed that the prayers violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment. The reasoning given by the majority fell strongly upon two points: (1) the prayers did not constitute the “establishment of religion” as they were performed by various clergymen over the years, and (2) the prayers were being used for an acceptable ceremonial purpose.
Setting the Scene
The town’s practices over the years were dubious (to say the least) as they were not inclusive of non-Christian prayers until 2008, and of the 120-or-so meetings over the 10 years in question, only four were opened by non-Christian invocations. Even so, given the technically open door policy that appears to be in place, the Court found this to be sufficient and that the town was neither engaging in the undue promotion of one religion, nor the denigration of another. Unfortunately for the Court, this misses the point entirely because it completely ignores the rights of those who hold no religious convictions at all – like the atheist who brought the lawsuit against the town in the first place.
Before I continue, I should point out that I understand the logic of the ruling, insofar as it is based on legal precedent and the reasonable conclusion that fairly-generic prayer is not the same as a state-sanctioned religion. That being said, I think that the Court has failed to uphold the rights of those who are non-religious, and that this is a major misstep. The “non-religious” form one of the fastest growing groups within the United States, and it is entirely understandable why they might like their government to spend time on governing, and not on invoking one deity or another prior to governing. This is an exclusionary practice that I can tell you sets some of us on edge. It is not welcoming; it is divisive. The fact that it is not intended to be so does not change the facts of the matter.
Now, I am not someone who believes that you have a right to avoid offense. I understand and embrace the idea that free speech can and will lead to offensive public speech, and it is a burden I think we can and should bear gladly. This is why I am happy to defend the right of someone to proselytize on public lands even if I think the words coming out of their mouth are offensive to reason, logic, and people in general. However, our Founding Fathers went to great lengths to (explicitly) avoid the intertwining of religion and government because they had seen the pernicious effect it has on those who are not “of the fold”. It is a particularly potent form of evil that arises whenever religious and political power come together, and it is an evil we can avoid by actively preventing the encroachment of religion into the sphere of government.
I do not find it especially “offensive” that people want religious rituals to be a part of their civic experience. I understand that many, many people experience religion is much the same way that you or I might experience breathing – it is a natural and acceptable part of life. Good for them! But now envision a scenario wherein this same person has to sit through numerous religious rights of faiths they do not hold stock in. Can you imagine that they will find it acceptable to have opposing religious views openly displayed prior to proceedings that should have no outward religious influence at all? The idea that these things can be so handily sandboxed amuses me endlessly, and it demonstrates the short-sightedness of those advocating for religious invocations prior to or during civic events.
How long before a nominally Christian crowd loses their Christ-like visage after having to listen to a Muslim prayer? How long before the Muslim is angered over the supposed influence of Hinduism in a similar setting? And what about the atheist or agnostic who just wants to get to the business of governance without having to sit through rites they might find amusing at best, or empty and dangerous at worst?
We need not conjure up hypotheticals to make the absurdity apparent; rather, think about the current case of the Satanic statue that is being designed for the capitol grounds of Oklahoma following the installment of the 10 Commandments on those same grounds a few years ago. Or, if you’d prefer, the inclusion of a Festivus pole in the capitol building of Florida this last holiday season. I, like you, may think this is a brilliant way of proving a point, but others out there are not so pleased. It is amazing how quickly “religious tolerance” can end once your view has been expressed and you are suddenly being asked to respect and include other viewpoints! (NOTE: The Governor’s Office’s refusal comes from Fox News via the Breitbart link included so that I may appear to be as fair and open-minded as I like to think that I am. I do not actually advocate anything to do with those sites. Seriously.) All of this ridiculousness is what you open yourself up to when you say that these prayers are allowed in any way. By opening the door at all, you open yourself up to defining boundaries that are inherently vague. This creates uncertainty that will inevitably lead to later challenges and confrontations from one group after another.
The argument from tradition that the Court raised is even weaker than the excuse that prayer is not the same as establishment, as the list of “traditions” that we have wisely and justly moved on from – even within the lifespan of this nation – is longer than I care to count. Remember slavery? That was, depending on who you asked, a religiously-endorsed tradition that we thankfully ended, even though it took us nearly a shame-filled century to find the moral and political will to do so.
None of what I have said has even mentioned the difficult task of determining what sort of speech within a prayer does not violate the establishment clause, or in determining when to apply the separation of church and state once any involvement has been allowed. You want to keep things simple? Then keep religion firmly out of government. You’ll avoid these grey areas (which is good since it’s all basically grey in the end) and you won’t have to listen to your own hypocrisy as you try and defend your religious stance while simultaneously denying the same rights to others. Even better, you won’t leave those with no religious conviction out in the cold, wondering why the job of self-governance requires the invocation of a higher power in the first place. As a secular humanist, I think we should have the confidence in ourselves to get on with the task at hand and the good-nature and foresight to do it without the need for divine intervention.
And, for those who still aren’t convinced, you’ll avoid the self-inflicted anger of seeing the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the Festivus Pole next to your beloved manger scene next holiday season. Everybody wins!
Featured photo used with the permission of Flickr user Mark Fischer.