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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 Drive to vindicate
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.