EDITORIAL: ‘God hangs on by one vote,’ at least for the time being

May. 08, 2014 @ 05:00 AM

The Supreme Court, by a 5-4 margin, upheld this week the opinion that prayers — including those considered Christian — at the start of local council meetings are indeed Constitutional.

The signal from the court’s conservative majority was that the content of prayers at such meetings wasn’t an issue so long as they don’t denigrate or attempt to convert non-Christians. In doing so, the court articulated the prevailing opinion of public officials — including some members of the Lee County Board of Commissioners, who have been outspoken about prayer — who believe strongly that forcing those delivering invocations (whether officials themselves or clergy or others invited for that purpose) to not invoke the name of Jesus Christ (or other religious figures) would amount to censorship.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the slim majority, said that the inclusion of “a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce non-believers.” Prayer, he wrote, doesn’t “coerce participation by nonadherents.”

The nation’s increasing religious diversity (and the growing numbers of people who are expressly non-religious) will no doubt continue to argue the issue. But the court’s ruling was clear.

The issue the justices wrestled with was whether prayer at government meetings violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Specifically, the case dealt with the town of Greece, N.Y., and its practice of opening council meetings with prayer. Two women sued the town because they were offended by the prayers of the predominantly Christian pastors and clergymen who typically offered the invocation.

Rightfully, the court’s majority recognized not just the tradition of prayer — dating back to the framers of the Constitution, who themselves held prayer to open meetings — but shared the understanding of the First Amendment expressed by those same framers. Activist judges and courts have bowed to the offended more and more in recent years, asserting in legal decisions that, as with this case, prayers made by someone else who doesn’t share the listener’s beliefs are offensive and, ostensibly, illegal.

With the decision, Americans’ right to pray in the public square is still intact.

In response to the decision, “God,” one headline proclaimed, “hangs on by a vote at the Supreme Court.” So we’re just that close to losing additional liberties, even despite the fact that the practice of legislative prayer had previously been upheld by the court. This case, observers said, was all about whether the justices would put further limits on God in the “public square,” long a place (literally and figuratively) where Americans have spoken freely and openly.

But some members of this and other courts have argued that “sectarian” prayers are not just divisive, but an expressed endorsement of a state religion. In the minds of some, any public prayer must be nonsectarian and wholly generic — which is an affront to anyone who engages in the practice and discipline of prayer. They forget that, in the case of Greece and other communities where the practice continues, council members and visitors are under no obligation to pray along and face no penalties if they don’t.

Had the vote gone the other way? For starters, citizens in our country would have been compelled to check their faith at the door when leaving their homes. In addition, any other decision would have made Congress guilty of violating the Constitution for more than 200 years.

Courts, one observer lamented, are working hard to restrict even a passing reference to a sectarian God.

“Religion,” one wrote, “is in no danger of imposing itself on Americans, but a dominant secular legal culture is still working hard to push religion to the sidelines of American public life.”

For now, thankfully, the practice of faith — just as its non-practice — is still in play.