In the recent U.S. Supreme Court case Greece v. Galloway, the five conservative justices ruled that sectarian content is permissible in public invocations and official prayer, while the four liberal dissenting justices felt that religious leaders should give nonsectarian prayers at government functions. I disagree with all nine justices. Their opinions reminded me of the quip from former Justice Potter Stewart that while he couldn’t define pornography, “I know it when I see it.”
I can neither define nor have I seen a nonsectarian prayer, but I know a sectarian prayer when I see it. Justice Anthony Kennedy, arguing for the majority in the Greece v. Galloway case, said that the government should not “act as supervisors and censors of religious speech,” yet went on to describe when they should. Kennedy added that clerics should not “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion.”
Why should the government censor a preacher who feels called to warn us that we will all burn in hell unless we accept Jesus as our personal lord and savior? If Pope Francis were to give an invocation in a public forum, should we caution him against focusing on Satan and exorcisms, as he is doing more frequently than recent popes?
Personally, I’d rather hear an honest fire-and-brimstone prayer than a watered-down, nondenominational, to-whom-it-may-concern prayer. In fact, I feel more excluded when I hear prayers to a nondenominational Almighty meant to be inclusive of all monotheistic faiths because this dismisses those of us who have no faith at all in deities. Religion in any form is inherently divisive. The five-to-four Supreme Court split, with five Catholics on one side and three Jews and a Catholic on the other, will not unify our country.
I’m not offended by prayer, but I am offended by government-sponsored prayers in a secular country constitutionally bound to not favor one religion over another or religion over non-religion. I’ve accepted invitations to visit a number of churches. I’ve welcomed Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons at my door and taken their literature even when they refused mine.
Some Christians have tried to place Ten Commandments plaques on public property, though you’ll almost never see them on church property. My former County Council representative and current U.S. senator, Tim Scott, once insisted on posting a Ten Commandments plaque on the wall in the Charleston, South Carolina County Council chambers to remind residents of moral absolutes. After the court declared the display unconstitutional, Scott was asked if he could name the Ten Commandments. He couldn’t.
Even when religious acts are just politics, prayer at government functions promotes the idea that decisions and actions are guided by a higher power rather than by thoughtful deliberations. Further, such government endorsements create theological insiders (almost always Christian) and outsiders. One such outsider, the Humanist Society, is now actively promoting its secular invocations program for local communities. Government bodies will have to decide which faith groups and secular groups they deem acceptable to speak at public meetings. Does anybody see conflicts ahead?
My Charleston City Council usually starts its meetings with an invocation from a Christian. In 2003, one council member invited me to give the invocation. But as the mayor introduced me, half the council members walked out because I’m an atheist, and they didn’t return until it was time to recite the Pledge of Allegiance — looking at me and bellowing the words “under God.”Nobody who heard my invocation was offended by it.
More recently, a Hindu priest in 2012 was invited to lead the opening prayer in the U.S. Senate. He was disrupted several times by angry Christians who shouted competing Christian prayers. Some in this country must think freedom of religion means freedom to practice the Christian religion. Others think we have freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion. No wonder our founders wisely separated religion and government.
I wish government bodies would simply begin with government business. But if prayer is part of government business, let’s treat it as such. Since my City Council allows time at meetings for questions and comments, would it not be appropriate to question the content of the opening prayer? If so, given religious sensitivities, there might not be time for any other business — another reason to keep religion out of government.
I’ve saved the worst (or maybe the best) for last. Though Justice Clarence Thomas voted with the majority in the Greece case, he didn’t think his conservative allies were extreme enough. Thomas said that the First Amendment “probably” bars Congress from setting up a national religion, but that doesn’t apply to the states.
For me, this was a déjà vu experience. In 1990, I went from being a mild mannered math professor to becoming an accidental activist atheist when I discovered that the South Carolina Constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office. After an eight-year legal battle, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled unanimously in my favor that Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution prohibited religious tests for public office, dismissing a states’ rights argument. Details of this case are included in my book.
Thanks to politicians like Clarence Thomas, I moved out of my academic ivory tower to become more engaged in social issues. Should four more people join the U.S. Supreme Court who share the philosophy of Thomas, perhaps states like South Carolina will be permitted to establish Christianity as their official religion and bar non-Christians from holding public office.
The Greece case is an irritating example of something that can be both constitutional and wrong. Though an atheist, I do like some of what Jesus purportedly said. I wish more of our politicians would take seriously Matthew 6:5: “When you pray, be not like the hypocrites who love to be seen by others.”
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