I Won’t Stand For It!: A Former Judge Says He’ll Take The Greece Ruling Sitting Down

The Supreme Court appears to take the position that this sort of church-state incest is just part of good ole’ American government – no harm, no foul. Well, the court is wrong.

Editor’s Note: Today 's blog post is by James C. Nelson, a retired justice of the Montana Supreme Court. Nelson was appointed to the court by Gov. Marc Racicot in 1993 and was reelected to the position three times, serving until his retirement in 2013.

I am a non-believer. I became that late in my adult life because I was disgusted with the hypocrisy of some varieties of religion and with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in particular.  My decision was grounded in more hours of study and contemplation than I care to estimate. I do not believe in, much less pray to, any god.

My point with that opening is that the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protect my fundamental right to be a non-believer; they ensure, among other things, that my various federal, state, county and local governments cannot require me – directly or indirectly – to participate in any religious exercise. Read together these religion clauses form the wall of separation between church and state that the framers intended.  They keep – or at least they are supposed to keep – religion out of government and government out of religion.

That is why I cannot accept the Supreme Court’s May 5 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway. In that case, the high court held that a New York town’s practice of opening its official board meetings with a Christian prayer offered by members of the clergy does not violate the First Amendment and does not discriminate against minority faiths or coerce participation from non-adherents. 

The court’s decision is flat wrong. It respects neither the history underpinning the adoption of the religion clauses, the wall of separation, nor the reality that “We the People” are a pluralistic and diverse society encompassing all degrees of sectarian believers, agnostics and atheists. 

Nonetheless, that decision is now the law of the land – created from whole cloth and judicially blessed by the right-wing Christian majority of our nation’s highest court. And, that puts me in a box.       

For many years I have stood during opening prayers in public meetings of federal, state and local government. I did so out of a sense of respect for the beliefs of others and for decorum, notwithstanding my personal disbelief in the prayer and the god prayed to. But, while respect can be freely given, it cannot be compelled.  And, thus, the Greece ruling leaves me but one option.

I will stand no longer for prayer! I will not, as the Supreme Court suggests, leave the room during the invocation. Rather, I will sit during the prayer in the meeting room in which I am constitutionally entitled to assemble. I will not be bullied nor will I be shamed into standing. After all, I’m not the one violating the constitutional separation of church and state. I cannot and will not be compelled to participate in any fashion in government-sponsored prayer.

To be clear, my problem is not with those who profess and practice belief in one form of religious doctrine or another. That fundamental right is guaranteed by the First Amendment. Rather, my issue is with public officials who insist on foisting their personal religious beliefs – through prayers in particular – on persons, like me and on others who do not believe, at public meetings. Stated another way, I take issue with government leaders who insist on mixing their official duties with religious prayers, pontifications, Bible readings and calls upon their god, before, during or at the end official public meetings.

Yet, the Supreme Court in Greece appears to take the position that this sort of church-state incest is just part of good ole’ American government – no harm, no foul. Well, the court is wrong. It is harmful to the First Amendment rights of non-believers and there is, accordingly, a foul of constitutional magnitude.

Any legal rationale that facilitates some public officials’ seemingly incessant attempts to force their religion down the unwilling throats of non-believers as part of government meetings undisputedly violates the First Amendment. If that truth offends the religious sensibilities of those doing the facilitating, then so be it. Indeed, thanks to the Roberts Five and the Greece ruling, everyone can now be offended – officially and as a matter of law.

There are many “ocracys” that the framers of our Constitution tried to prevent. Chief among them was theocracy. For, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, those who torment us with their religious beliefs will do so without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.

Now, sadly, they will also do so officially, with the divine sanction of the Supreme Court of the United States.  

We the People may be stuck with the court’s newest dictate, but, as for me. . . . I will stand no longer for prayer.