I occasionally go to town council meetings in my municipality of University Park, Md. They are most often small, and people know each other. Citizens usually attend because they are seeking something: a permit to build a fence, a new stop sign, a variance to build a garage.
In University Park, town council meetings begin when the mayor calls them to order; there is no opening prayer. In my view, that (or at most a moment of silence) is the way it should be. We are supposed to have separation of religion and state in this country, and we are best off when we observe that wisdom handed down to us from founding fathers like James Madison.
So, I was shocked by the recent Supreme Court ruling this week that approved sectarian prayers before town council meetings. It was a 5-4 decision in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway. For years, almost all the prayer leaders at the beginning of town meetings in Greece, N.Y. have been Christian, and most made explicit references to Christian theology in their prayers: the person of Jesus, the Resurrection, Pentecost, etc. Only when two citizens threatened a lawsuit did the town find a couple non-Christians to lead prayer.
Those citizens were Susan Galloway – who is Jewish – and Linda Stephens, an atheist. They called the prayers “offensive, intolerable and an affront to a diverse community.” They believed that the prayers violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits any “establishment of religion.”
I agree with them. If I were Jewish or Muslim or agnostic – or any non-Christian faith – I’d feel alienated by such prayer, as if the town somehow “belonged” to Christians, and not me. And suppose the prayer leader asked everyone at a meeting to stand for the prayer (as sometimes happened in Greece), and I did not want to join. Sure, I could stay seated. But if I came to get a permit for a fence, I might be concerned that non-participation would influence the response to my request. Or that my neighbors might talk. I might feel coerced into doing something (standing for prayer) with which I did not agree.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, called prayer on these occasions “ceremonial,” an exercise in “civic recognition.” He grouped it together with practices like swearing in police officers, inducting someone into a local hall of fame and presenting proclamations to civic groups. For him, prayer came across as municipal window dressing.
But for Americans of religious faith, prayer is not a civic “ceremony”; it is a sacred time for communication with God. And in this country, with the First Amendment to the Constitution expressly prohibiting any “establishment of religion,” it is not the place of the government to determine how we communicate with God.
On Interfaith Voices, we hosted a debate on this Supreme Court decision. (Interfaith Voices is on public radio; both sides get a chance to make their case). If you want to listen, here is the link: http://interfaithradio.org/Story_Details/Debating_Prayer_in_Public_Life