Greece v. Galloway

COMMENTARY: There's Little to Celebrate in Greece v. Galloway Prayer Decision

The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of Interfaith Alliance. Photo courtesy Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications.

The great rejoicing after the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on public prayer reminded me of the infamous line from an officer who commented on the destruction of a village during the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it!”

There isn’t much to celebrate in the high court’s decision in Greece v. Galloway to allow sectarian prayers to be spoken in all kinds of public meetings. The big loser in this judicial decision was prayer itself — its uniqueness and its authenticity.

This most recent decision from the court, like many before it, has provided a “win” for conservative forces. But it comes at the price of a broadside against (if not a compromise of) religion. Why? Because prayer is a spiritual practice that’s better defined theologically rather than politically or legally.

Supreme Court Prayer Ruling May Spur New Alliances

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, at the Reason Rally on March 24, 2012. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner.

This week’s Supreme Court ruling allowing sectarian prayers at public meetings dealt a body blow to atheist organizations.

That was the assessment of David Silverman, president of American Atheists, speaking Tuesday to a group of nonbelievers at Stanford University. He then described a scenario that may raise eyebrows among some atheists: working with religious groups to fight against the ruling.

“That’s what we have to do, not only organize the atheists, but the Satanists, the Scientologists,” he said. In a conversation before his talk, he added Muslims, Jews, and Hindus. “We as atheists have the responsibility to urge them and push them and get them in there to get their prayers” said at public meetings.

That’s a change for a man who has famously described religion as a “poison.” And it is emblematic, observers say, of the change that may result from the majority opinion in Greece v. Galloway, which found that prayers citing “the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ” are permissible before government business.

Other secularists are likewise convinced that now is the time for atheists to join forces with members of minority faiths.

Town Prayers: What Does the Supreme Court Mean By 'Coercion'?

Demonstrators hold signs in front of the Supreme Court on Nov. 6, 2013 during oral arguments of Greece v. Galloway. RNS photo

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a city, town, or county could open its regular meetings with a sectarian (that is, Christian) prayer without violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Not unexpectedly, the much-anticipated Town of Greece v. Galloway decision split the court 5-4. It is, for that and other reasons, a less than satisfying decision.

The essence of the opinion is that if ministers are asked to give an invocation to establish a serious and contemplative tone at official functions (whether a congressional session or town board meeting), it does not matter if prayers are consistently Christian (or Jewish or Muslim). So long as the government does not control the prayers’ content, is nondiscriminatory in choosing who may pray (even atheists would have an equal opportunity to open meetings), and does not mandate that people attend or participate in prayers or penalize those who do not, the prayers may continue.

Supreme Court Approves Sectarian Prayer at Public Meetings

Susan Galloway, a resident of the town, Greece, NY, who filed a lawsuit against the town. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess.

The Supreme Court Monday declared that the Constitution not only allows for prayer at government meetings, but religious prayer.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy held that the town of Greece, N.Y., did not violate the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which forbids the government from endorsing a religion — by sponsoring clergy who delivered sectarian prayers.

“To hold that invocations must be non-sectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech,” Kennedy wrote for himself and the conservatives on the court.

Lawmakers and judges would otherwise have to police prayer, he wrote, involving “government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their contact after the fact.”

Most Voters Favor Prayer, Minus Jesus, at Public Meetings

Susan Galloway, a resident of the town, Greece, NY, who filed a lawsuit against the town. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess.

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on the constitutionality of prayer at public meetings. But a new survey finds U.S. voters clearly favor prayer – as long the public prayer is generic and not specifically Christian.

Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind survey asked about attitudes on high profile cases before the court, including Greece v. Galloway. That case addresses whether elected officials can open public meetings with religiously specific prayers , such as praying in Jesus’ name.

A Jew and an atheist brought suit in Greece, N.Y., saying the Christian prayers excluded many citizens and violated the Constitution, which bans government establishment of religion. Even when the town began inviting non-Christians to give invocations, the “establishment” issue remained a question.

Supreme Court Wrestles with How 'Religious' Prayer Should Be at Public Meetings

Demonstrators hold signs in front of the Supreme Court on Wednesday. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

The Supreme Court struggled Wednesday with a case that asks whether government bodies can open with prayers that some people find overly religious and excluding.

From their lines of questioning, it’s unclear whether the court is ready to write new rules on what sort of prayer falls outside constitutional bounds. And more than one of the justices noted that just before they took their seats, a court officer declared: “God save the United States and this honorable court.”

Few court watchers believe the justices will rule all civic prayers unconstitutional — the nation has a long history of convening legislative bodies with such language.

Rather, the question raised by Town of Greece v. Galloway is how sectarian these prayers can get.

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