A Supreme Court ruling last week in favor of sectarian prayer at public meetings should be seen as a mandate for greater diversity and tolerance, not as a free pass to shove one’s religion on others.
Public bodies need to be inclusive, sensitive and careful in handling prayer before meetings.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the slim 5-4 majority: “Legislative prayer, while religious in nature, has long been understood as compatible with the Establishment Clause.”
He noted that it is a national tradition, dating at least to the first Congress voting in favor of an official chaplain shortly after approving the language of the First Amendment, which includes the Establishment Clause.
Legal wrangling over interpreting the simple clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ...”) also has become a national tradition.
In a key 1947 ruling, the court gave this overview:
“The establishment of religion clause means at least this: Neither a state nor the federal government may set up a church. Neither can pass laws that aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. ... Neither a state or the federal government may, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and state.’”
Last week’s ruling presents a common-sense approach that fits within that overview.
But justices writing for both the majority and minority in the dispute over how the town of Greece, N.Y., handled public prayer were clear that diversity and inclusiveness are required.
Kennedy wrote: “It would ... be unwise to conclude that only those religious words acceptable to the majority are permissible, for the First Amendment is not a majority rule and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech. In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no constraints remain on its content.”
Problematic prayers would include those that denigrate or proselytize, he said.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “I respectfully dissent from the Court’s opinion because I think the town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality – the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”
The dissenters did not argue for no prayer, but responsible prayer.
“I believe that pluralism and inclusion in a town hall can satisfy the constitutional requirement of neutrality; such a forum need not become a religion-free zone,” Kagan wrote.
Now it is up to local governmental bodies to carry out in good faith this “breathtakingly generous constitutional idea.”