A New Low At The High Court: Justices Approve ‘Majority-Rules’ Government Prayer Scheme

This ruling is out of step with the realities of modern-day America, which is marked by expanding religious and philosophical diversity.

By now you’ve probably heard that the U.S. Supreme Court this morning upheld the right of a city in New York to open its meetings with mostly Christian prayers.

Americans United litigated this case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, on behalf of two women who opposed the “majority-rules” prayer practice in Greece, N.Y. Obviously, we strongly oppose today’s ruling.

The decision was marked by a familiar 5-4 split. We will have a longer analysis of the case later, but for now consider this quote from Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the dissenters:

“In arranging for clergy members to open each meeting, the Town never sought (except briefly when this suit was filed) to involve, accommodate, or in any way reach out to adherents of non-Christian religions. So month in and month out for over a decade, prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits. In my view, that practice does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.”

That says it exactly. This ruling is out of step with the realities of modern-day America, which is marked by expanding religious and philosophical diversity.

In the lead opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy asserts that some government-backed prayer might still be problematic.

“If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbeliev­ers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort,” Kennedy wrote. “That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”

So, the high court is not willing to say what constitutes a “non-sectarian” prayer – but it is willing to at least entertain the idea that offensive and derogatory prayers can be a problem?

I suspect we haven’t seen the last of this issue.

One more thing: The majority opinion makes it clear that legislative prayer often isn’t coercive because the adults being exposed to it have options, such as leaving the room. So, if any misguided Religious Right activists out there is thinking this decision opens the door for a return of official school prayer, they can forget it. This decision is clearly limited to the context of legislative sessions.