Praying for true religious freedom at the Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case “Town of Greece v. Galloway,” and then decide, once and for all, whose religion is best.

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear the case known as “Town of Greece v. Galloway,” and the highest court in the land will then decide, once and for all, whose religion is best.

Seems that the town council of the sleepy burg of Greece, NY (population 100k), has for more than a decade opened its monthly meetings with an appeal to Jesus to endorse the proceedings

Okay, the town council has not been quite this obtuse.  In pushing its position through the court system, the council has pointed out that it has invited affiliates of any of Greece’s many religious communities to ask Jesus to endorse its proceedings.

The council boosts the evidence of its impartiality with the convincing statistics that as many as four of the council’s opening prayers during the past decade have been offered by non-Christians and that only two-thirds of the council’s last ten years of prayers have included explicit references to Jesus.

Greece’s council was not satisfied with the unanimous U.S. Court of Appeals decision in 2011 that it was out-of-compliance with the Consitution, so it asked the Supreme Court to reverse the Court of Appeals and allow the town to continue its tradition of non-sectarian Christian prayer.

I, for one, am hoping that the Supreme Court will, indeed, reverse the lower court, because I’m just too intrigued by the possibilities the decision would open up in American civic life.

For instance, the next town council meeting in Greece would probably still open with a Jesus prayer.  But the next meeting could open with a rabbi’s invocation.  The meeting after that could open with a Hindu salutation to Vishnu.  And the meeting after that could open with the following prayer, written by Nobel Prize-winning poet, Giosuè Carducci (translation brought to you by two semesters of college Italian)

Hail, O Satan,
Thou Defiance,
Thou Drive to vindicate
Our reason

The next meeting (assuming there would be a next meeting) could open with this prayer of my own composition:

O Twinkie, wholesome Twinkie,
Absent thou art, but ever present in our tissue,
And we ever look for Thy second coming in a gold morning.
Settle Thy spongy goodness over this our town council,
And cream us.

Before you say that I’ve plunged down a slippery slope of absurdity, consider that a good part of the Founding Fathers’ motivation to set religion apart from government was to ensure that the town of Greece wouldn’t have to object to having Satan called down (or up) to bless its governmental activity.

And also to ensure that someone like me couldn’t claim a right to make a government meeting the occasion to make light of faith.

The Framers of the United States’ remarkable “separation of church and state” doctrine knew from their own experience that “religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.”  (That was President Washington in 1792.

Those who shaped how this democracy works made a conscious effort to inhibit the infection of civic life by these hatreds.  To this end they worked to prevent any particular sect from enjoying—or appearing to enjoy—any undisguised privilege.

In Greece’s council meetings, the excessive invocation of Jesus not only suggests that Christianity enjoys an undisguised privilege in Greece, but because these meetings fill both executive and legislative functions—because they are the principal venue in which town citizens can present themselves as contributors to Greece’s democratic function—the council’s excessive invocation of Jesus constitutes religious coercion, which the Founders regarded as anathema.

“We should be very cautious,” wrote Washington (not just cautious but very cautious), “of violating the Rights of Conscience in others.”  To avoid situations in which the government might appear to be imposing a particular religious view on people, Jefferson insisted that the speech of governmental bodies required “some degree of proscription.”

That is, the government should take care not to say everything that it might say.  In matters of religion, it should err on the side of silence.

The cost of ensuring that you will not have to confront your discomfort with the invocation of Satan over your petition to your city’s government is the guarantee that the city government won’t invoke Jesus over the petition of someone else, a fellow citizen who might find Jesus just as offensive.

In this democracy, in which, as Jefferson said, “the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression,” the cost of keeping the Holy Twinkie out of your town council is keeping Jesus out of your town council, too.

Image courtesy of Mark Fischer.

About

David Mason David Mason is an associate professor at Rhodes College. He is the author of "Theatre and Religion on Krishna's Stage" and "My Mormonism." His biography of Brigham Young will be available later this year from Routledge. Follow him on Twitter: @fatsodoctor.
  • jsoles2001

    What’s the big deal? What is their ax to grind? They need to find a hobby or something to keep them busy because it sounds like typical professional victims who forget that this country is ruled by the majority.

  • jsoles2001

    What’s the big deal? What is their ax to grind? They need to find a hobby or something to keep them busy because it sounds like typical professional victims who forget that this country is ruled by the majority.

  • tombukowski

    No prayer on the public dime. Go home, or to church. Unless you want to take away the tax exempt status.

  • tombukowski

    No prayer on the public dime. Go home, or to church. Unless you want to take away the tax exempt status.

  • cricket44

    Wildly inappropriate to have a prayer at a town meeting. Ridiculous.

  • cricket44

    Wildly inappropriate to have a prayer at a town meeting. Ridiculous.

  • leibowde84

    The constitution, which strictly forbids the government or government actors endorsing any religious beliefs or institution, protects the minority.

  • leibowde84

    The constitution, which strictly forbids the government or government actors endorsing any religious beliefs or institution, protects the minority.

  • BaltimoreBuc

    democracy does not equal mob rule

  • BaltimoreBuc

    democracy does not equal mob rule

  • SteveScher

    Perhaps it is the members of the Greece town council who should get a hobby, instead of spending the taxpayers money on fighting an appeals court’s decision.

    The thing that has kept this country going for 200+ years is the fact that majority power is carefully balanced by individual rights. The majority doesn’t have the right to take away those rights.

  • SteveScher

    Perhaps it is the members of the Greece town council who should get a hobby, instead of spending the taxpayers money on fighting an appeals court’s decision.

    The thing that has kept this country going for 200+ years is the fact that majority power is carefully balanced by individual rights. The majority doesn’t have the right to take away those rights.

  • leibowde84

    Alright … stop being so selfish. Why must conservatives offend people unnecessarily simply so they can feel better about themselves?! Why can’t they just pray before sessions or wait until they get off the clock? It is disgraceful.

  • leibowde84

    Alright … stop being so selfish. Why must conservatives offend people unnecessarily simply so they can feel better about themselves?! Why can’t they just pray before sessions or wait until they get off the clock? It is disgraceful.

  • leibowde84

    How is a government actor praying to a specific God or Diety not that government actor “endorsing” that religious belief? It sends a bad message to kids that might see Christianity as the national religion and might feel pressured to take it up.

  • leibowde84

    How is a government actor praying to a specific God or Diety not that government actor “endorsing” that religious belief? It sends a bad message to kids that might see Christianity as the national religion and might feel pressured to take it up.

  • jct4

    It seems that the Christian council members don’t read the words of Jesus very carefully. They need to the consult Book of Matthew verse about not praying like the hypocrites do, but that one should pray in secret. There should be no prayer at official functions at all.

  • jct4

    It seems that the Christian council members don’t read the words of Jesus very carefully. They need to the consult Book of Matthew verse about not praying like the hypocrites do, but that one should pray in secret. There should be no prayer at official functions at all.

  • Anon_ymous

    How would you like to be a Muslim member of the Greece community, bringing business before the council after having to sit through a christian prayer?

    It’s as ridiculous as having the 10 commandments posted in a courthouse.

  • Anon_ymous

    How would you like to be a Muslim member of the Greece community, bringing business before the council after having to sit through a christian prayer?

    It’s as ridiculous as having the 10 commandments posted in a courthouse.

  • Anon_ymous

    yes, Jsoles, we should just shut up and pretend to pray so that good christians don’t have to be reminded that not everyone believes like they do.

  • Anon_ymous

    yes, Jsoles, we should just shut up and pretend to pray so that good christians don’t have to be reminded that not everyone believes like they do.

  • abrooklynite

    Why do people have to pray everywhere? That is like religious OCD.

  • abrooklynite

    Why do people have to pray everywhere? That is like religious OCD.

  • giantsfan

    And yet Jesus also prayed many times in public.

  • giantsfan

    And yet Jesus also prayed many times in public.

  • eddikon

    Majority rule, but the rights of everyone, including minorities, are protected by The Constitution.

  • eddikon

    Majority rule, but the rights of everyone, including minorities, are protected by The Constitution.

  • Civil-Discourse

    eddikon – No, it is not majority rule. Our system of government was created to protect the rights of minorities. Besides that, how are you going to feel if your religious/ethnic/racial group finds itself in the minority someday? Are you going to say, “oh, we’re okay. The majority can trample our rights if they want to. I don’t mind if some previously obscure religion is recognized by the government as supreme, and they disregard my dearly held beliefs.”

    Nah, didn’t think so.

  • Civil-Discourse

    eddikon – No, it is not majority rule. Our system of government was created to protect the rights of minorities. Besides that, how are you going to feel if your religious/ethnic/racial group finds itself in the minority someday? Are you going to say, “oh, we’re okay. The majority can trample our rights if they want to. I don’t mind if some previously obscure religion is recognized by the government as supreme, and they disregard my dearly held beliefs.”

    Nah, didn’t think so.

  • Civil-Discourse

    giantsfan, Jesus didn’t pray in public seeking to draw attention to himself. And, really, that’s the point of Christian prayer at government or government-sanctioned events. I think your analogy doesn’t pass the reality test.

  • Civil-Discourse

    giantsfan, Jesus didn’t pray in public seeking to draw attention to himself. And, really, that’s the point of Christian prayer at government or government-sanctioned events. I think your analogy doesn’t pass the reality test.

  • wenharas1

    That’s not religious freedom – that’s a perv attempting to use religion to justify illegal behavior.

  • wenharas1

    That’s not religious freedom – that’s a perv attempting to use religion to justify illegal behavior.

  • areformjew

    Moderate Muhammahmedians claim that the Islamic religion is the continuation of the Judeo-Christian Tradition; so (logically speaking), they should have no problem engaging in business here after Christian prayers.

  • areformjew

    Moderate Muhammahmedians claim that the Islamic religion is the continuation of the Judeo-Christian Tradition; so (logically speaking), they should have no problem engaging in business here after Christian prayers.

  • wenharas1

    I’ve never understood why it’s important to open meetings with a prayer. If it’s important to take a few minutes to reflect on what is about to happen, why not a moment of silence?

  • wenharas1

    I’ve never understood why it’s important to open meetings with a prayer. If it’s important to take a few minutes to reflect on what is about to happen, why not a moment of silence?

  • See_All_The_Facts

    Did the town council stop any group from offering a prayer or a moment of silence ? If one person attended a meeting and wanted their group to offer a prayer or moment of silence at a future meeting then it was done. That is Freedom of Religion. Many on this post are Against Religion. If a serious group offers a prayer then it is a chance for me to learn more about that group. If you are against religion then offer a moment of silence. How hard is that. I know it is hard for the haters in the crowd but lets get real.

  • See_All_The_Facts

    Did the town council stop any group from offering a prayer or a moment of silence ? If one person attended a meeting and wanted their group to offer a prayer or moment of silence at a future meeting then it was done. That is Freedom of Religion. Many on this post are Against Religion. If a serious group offers a prayer then it is a chance for me to learn more about that group. If you are against religion then offer a moment of silence. How hard is that. I know it is hard for the haters in the crowd but lets get real.

  • wireman65

    How about we just leave prayers out of meeting of governmental bodies.

  • wireman65

    How about we just leave prayers out of meeting of governmental bodies.

  • detroitblkmale30

    Again, people often appeal to the extreme examples to argue against the most common ones. I don’t see how freedom of religion is obtained through less religious expression.

  • detroitblkmale30

    Again, people often appeal to the extreme examples to argue against the most common ones. I don’t see how freedom of religion is obtained through less religious expression.

  • bahntemps

    We don’t need freedom from religion so much as we need freedom from the acrimony that taxpayer financed displays of socialized religiousity always seem to bring us. We gain nothing by continuing a practice that is guaranteed to upset some, please no one, and waste everybody’s time; the vast majority of the population, quite frankly, wouldn’t notice if the practice simply ceased.

    We shouldn’t even need a 1st Amendment solution to this problem; common sense says to leave religion to the free market where it belongs, and get back to fixing the dang pothole on my street.

  • bahntemps

    We don’t need freedom from religion so much as we need freedom from the acrimony that taxpayer financed displays of socialized religiousity always seem to bring us. We gain nothing by continuing a practice that is guaranteed to upset some, please no one, and waste everybody’s time; the vast majority of the population, quite frankly, wouldn’t notice if the practice simply ceased.

    We shouldn’t even need a 1st Amendment solution to this problem; common sense says to leave religion to the free market where it belongs, and get back to fixing the dang pothole on my street.

  • RAMJ

    The difference is if you are coming before the town “fathers” for a zoning variance, or a building permit, or a what have you and are forced to decide whether to stand by you principles and refuse to participate in these gross displays of religiosity for the sake of getting along, or remain seated with head up and suffer the consequences.

    Believe me, there will be consequences.

    Christians are shameless in their proselytizing and their insinuation of it into supposedly democratic community activities and services, including the annual town hall meetings here in New England and elsewhere in the courts and state congressional bodies, and in the national congress as well.

    It disgusts me that they have such hubris. It’s like pissing in public, or taking a dump on the side of the road while others watch.

    As an atheist, I am judging you too. Keep your faiths to yourselves, please.

  • RAMJ

    The difference is if you are coming before the town “fathers” for a zoning variance, or a building permit, or a what have you and are forced to decide whether to stand by you principles and refuse to participate in these gross displays of religiosity for the sake of getting along, or remain seated with head up and suffer the consequences.

    Believe me, there will be consequences.

    Christians are shameless in their proselytizing and their insinuation of it into supposedly democratic community activities and services, including the annual town hall meetings here in New England and elsewhere in the courts and state congressional bodies, and in the national congress as well.

    It disgusts me that they have such hubris. It’s like pissing in public, or taking a dump on the side of the road while others watch.

    As an atheist, I am judging you too. Keep your faiths to yourselves, please.

  • RAMJ

    I believe that Jesus cautioned against the overtly “pious” man.

    I meet one, I keep an eye on him or her and disassociate. What else can one do to keep from being judged based on the tenets of a made up being who always works to the benefit of the believers’ vindication?

  • RAMJ

    I believe that Jesus cautioned against the overtly “pious” man.

    I meet one, I keep an eye on him or her and disassociate. What else can one do to keep from being judged based on the tenets of a made up being who always works to the benefit of the believers’ vindication?

  • Catken1

    I don’t see how government prayers create “more religious expression” by favoring one religion over others. Surely allowing everyone to pray in their own individual way, on their own time, results in a wider range of religious expression?
    If you need government to tell you when and how to express your religion, it isn’t your religion any more – it’s government’s.

  • Catken1

    I don’t see how government prayers create “more religious expression” by favoring one religion over others. Surely allowing everyone to pray in their own individual way, on their own time, results in a wider range of religious expression?
    If you need government to tell you when and how to express your religion, it isn’t your religion any more – it’s government’s.

  • Catken1

    Christian prayers pray to Jesus as a God, though, which is idolatrous sin in Islam.

  • Catken1

    Christian prayers pray to Jesus as a God, though, which is idolatrous sin in Islam.

  • Catken1

    Jesus wasn’t praying at times when he was being paid to do the public’s business, either, nor was he using government pressure to push others to pray with him.

  • Catken1

    Jesus wasn’t praying at times when he was being paid to do the public’s business, either, nor was he using government pressure to push others to pray with him.

  • SimonNorwich

    Freedom of religion or any other kind of personal interest cannot include imposing it upon someone else, because then that person’s freedom is being eroded. So when people meet for council business, they should all leave their personal interests at home, whether those interests be religious, artistic, sporting or whatever, and just do their job. That’s the only way to be fair and provide the maximum possible freedom for everyone.

  • SimonNorwich

    Freedom of religion or any other kind of personal interest cannot include imposing it upon someone else, because then that person’s freedom is being eroded. So when people meet for council business, they should all leave their personal interests at home, whether those interests be religious, artistic, sporting or whatever, and just do their job. That’s the only way to be fair and provide the maximum possible freedom for everyone.

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