For most of President Barack Obama’s time in office, there has been a pretty steady drumbeat from the Religious Right and its allies about his supposed “war on religion.” That claim, among others, was used to motivate right-wing fundamentalists to work assiduously to defeat Obama in 2012.
Now it’s 2013, and it seems Obama’s administration is inexplicably throwing the Religious Right a bone by asking to intervene in a U.S. Supreme Court case involving coercive prayer before local board meetings.
As you probably know, Americans United will be arguing a case Nov. 6 before the Supreme Court on behalf of two residents of Greece, N.Y., who objected to their town board’s sponsorship of mostly Christian prayers before meetings.
The town is being represented by the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a Religious Right legal outfit founded by radio and television preachers. The ADF is a harsh and constant critic of the Obama administration, particularly on health-care issues, which makes it really puzzling why the government is making an effort to help the group.
And yet, back in August the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court on the side of allowing all sorts of unrestricted official prayer before government meetings. In its brief DOJ cited historical precedent as a justification for pre-meeting prayers.
“Throughout its history, and dating back to the first session of the Continental Congress in 1774, the United States Congress has appointed chaplains to open each legislative day with a prayer,” the brief said.
Americans United, on the other hand, explained in its brief filed this week with the Supreme Court that: “The official prayer practice puts religious minorities in a difficult spot: They can either betray their conscience by participating in a prayer that conflicts with their religious views or single themselves out by declining to take part.”
The DOJ’s brief was certainly not appreciated by Americans United, and unfortunately that was not the end of DOJ’s involvement.
On Sept. 12, DOJ asked to join the Nov. 6 oral argument to represent the interests of the United States. In other words, the solicitor general of the United States will actually stand beside the ADF and help argue the case before the high court.
You read that right. The administration is actually going to work alongside an extreme Religious Right organization that can’t stand the president, a group that, in fact, has spent the past five years urging pastors to violate federal law by using the pulpit to order congregants not to vote for Obama.
Far-right groups often accuse Americans United of being in league with the Obama administration. In fact, the president’s record on church-state separation is nothing to get excited about. This new incident is just the latest in a string of disappointments.
Obama pledged to end hiring discrimination in the “faith-based” initiative – but he hasn’t done a thing to end it. In 2010, the administration backed private school tax credits in Arizona when they were challenged before the Supreme Court, going so far as to argue that taxpayers shouldn’t even have the right to sue over the matter. (The Solicitor General’s Office also helped argue that case in court.)
Certainly Obama has done some good for the church-state wall. His two appointments to the Supreme Court – Justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor -- appreciate the importance of that protective barrier.
But this latest action can’t help but disappoint us. The administration is not only on the wrong side of this important church-state case, it is helping a theocratic group that says church-state separation is a “myth” and yearns for an officially “Christian” America.