By Marsha Mercer
Imagine that you have a child with Down syndrome, and you want your town to open a group home for children with the condition.
When you go to your town board to make your case, the meeting starts with a Christian prayer. A minister stands at a lectern. facing the small group of assembled citizens, and invites everyone to join in a prayer to Jesus Christ, the savior of the world.
For more than a decade, residents of Greece, N.Y., a town of 94,000 near Rochester, faced such a situation whenever they had business with their town board. Then, two women – one Jewish and one an atheist – complained about the Christian prayers and filed a lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court.
The women contended that the board’s practice of inviting only Christian clergy to lead the opening prayer violated the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by preferring Christians over others and by sponsoring sectarian prayer.
The practice was coercive because “it is impossible not to participate without attracting attention to yourself, and moments later you stand up to ask for a group home…having just, so far as you can tell, irritated the people that you were trying to persuade,” Douglas Laycock, a University of Virginia law professor, told the court in oral arguments last November.
On Monday, a majority of justices disagreed. The court ruled 5-4 in Town of Greece v. Galloway that the board could continue opening its meetings with Christian prayers. The majority upheld the majority religion; the minority got short shrift.
“Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. People who “feel excluded or disrespected” by the prayers should ignore them or leave the room, Kennedy brusquely suggested. So much for walking in someone else’s shoes.
Kennedy noted that all the clergy in the town directory from which prayer-givers were chosen were Christians, reflecting the town. His opinion was joined by the court’s four conservatives – Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan wrote: “I think the town of Greece’s prayer practices violate the 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.”
Kagan made clear she was not advocating a prayer- or religion-free zone but the board had done nothing to recognize religious diversity. Until the lawsuit was filed, the “chaplain of the month” was always a Christian.
“So month in and month out for over a decade, prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits,” Kagan wrote. That practice “does not square with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government,” she said.
Joining Kagan’s dissent were Justices Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.
About three in four Americans approve of prayer at public meetings as long as officials don’t favor one belief over another, a national poll last December by Fairleigh Dickinson University found.
As with any case involving religion and government, reaction on both sides was swift and strong.
“This is the first good thing the Supreme Court has done in a long time,” declared Randall Wise, mayor of Niceville, Fla., where the city council has been praying at meetings since before he became mayor 42 years ago.
Even if the court had ruled against the prayers, Niceville’s city council would have kept praying, he insisted.
“We would have kept doing it until they stopped us with guns or took us off to jail,” the mayor said, the Northwest Florida Daily News reported.
But the red headline on the website of Americans United for Separation of Church and State was unequivocal in its opposition: “Supreme Mistake!”
Laycock, the University of Virginia law professor, told NPR the ruling “is a green light for local majorities to impose their religious practices on their fellow citizens.”
And that goes against the grain in our pluralistic society.
Kagan had it right. “When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another,” she wrote.
©2014 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.