On Monday, May 5, 2014, the United States Supreme Court upheld the practice of opening a town council meeting with prayer. At issue was the town council of Greece, NY and its practice of opening its sessions with prayers that were almost exclusively Christian in nature, with frequent references to Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The ruling is being called a victory for religious freedom and prayer in public settings. But it may not be quite so simple.
It took the case seven years to make its way to the Supreme Court. It was originally brought by Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, one a Jew, the other an atheist. The women contended that the prayers aligned the town with one religion, Christianity. They also claimed that those in attendance at the meetings were pressured to participate and that the town meetings were attended by residents who had to be there in order to get business permits and apply for zoning changes.
The Court’s decision was 5 – 4, along ideological lines. Speaking for the conservative majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable court’ at the opening of this court’s sessions.”
The decision further stated that the content of the prayers did not matter, so long as they don’t denigrate or advance any particular faith, try to win converts, or coerce attendees. The alternatives facing the Court were to have government officials “censor” prayer or rule all such prayers unconstitutional.
One of the potential unintended consequences of the ruling may be to open the door for decidedly non-Christian prayers to be offered in communities where there is a majority of residents who claim a different faith. Justice Kennedy may have opened that door when he wrote, “The first Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech. Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer-giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates.”
So prayer, at least in the public arena, lives on. For now. But what if the Court had ruled differently? What if they had decided that prayers offered at the opening of legislative sessions must be devoid of any reference to a specific faith or deity? What if they had ruled that any prayer offered as part of an official government function was unconstitutional? Would the good people of the Greece, NY town council have ceased praying, at least publicly? I hope not.
But, as I see it, here’s the danger. If we wait for or need the permission of our government to exercise our faith, what do we do if they rescind that permission? I don’t believe that we need anyone’s permission to exercise our faith. And that’s what troubles me about this decision. Yes, it was in the favor of people of faith, but it sets a dangerous precedent in allowing the government to dictate if or how or when we may exercise our faith.
Peter and the apostles were imprisoned for preaching in the name of Jesus. When they miraculously escaped and continued preaching in the temple the high priest confronted Peter once again, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to continue teaching in this (Jesus’) name,” and Peter replied, “We must obey God rather than men.”* So let’s keep praying, openly, publicly. With or without permission.
*Read the full account in Acts 5:17-42.