In a 5-4 decision, SCOTUS ruled that opening such meetings with prayer does not violate the Constitution, even if those prayers are explicitly and specifically Christian.
Many religious leaders have welcomed the decision, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. According to Salt Lake City’s KSL, Mormon leaders released the following statement through church spokesman Cody Craynor:
We applaud the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the long standing practice of prayer within government meetings. We believe the ruling upholds the rich American tradition of religious participation in the public square.
Religious participation for some, perhaps. And that’s the trouble.
It is true that prayer in government meetings is a “long-standing practice”; that doesn’t mean it is a particularly good one. The First Amendment seeks to protect two things about religion: all citizens are to have freedom of religion, but also freedom from the establishment of religion by the government.
Praying in public meetings certainly doesn’t violate the first of those clauses; it’s one person’s or even one whole council’s free exercise of religious belief.
But four of the nine justices argued that it does violate the Establishment Clause, which stipulates that the government cannot make a law respecting an “establishment of religion.”
Various court cases through the decades have interpreted this to mean that the government can’t be seen as giving preferential treatment to any one religion, whether that means ending the Anglican practice of taxing citizens to support a vicar’s salary or preventing states from funding Catholic schools.
The problem arises, as Justice Kagan’s dissenting opinion expressed, that religious minorities will not be on a level playing field right from the start of any government meeting that opens with a prayer of the majority (which in this nation is usually Christian).
As CNN’s Belief Blog pointed out, every one of the five justices that voted in favor of the measure is a member of the United States’ largest religious body, the Roman Catholic church. (Sonia Sotomayor, the sixth Catholic judge on the bench, voted with the minority.)
It’s all too easy for a religious majority to overlook the presence or needs of religious minorities. But in Mormon history, we have enough examples of being religiously oppressed that we ought to remember a bit more clearly what it feels like. Catholics, too, might have a less selective memory of how much it sucks to be on the losing side.
As a Mormon, I “claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of [my] own conscience, and allow all [people] the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” (Eleventh Article of Faith)
That should include allowing people the privilege not to be subjected to someone else’s religion in a state-sponsored government meeting, no matter whose religion it is.
The burden should not be on members of minority religions to, for example, leave the room if they don’t want to hear a Christian prayer, which is what Justice Kennedy apparently suggested.
Any solution that involves Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and Buddhists sitting out in the hallway for the first part of a government meeting is no solution at all.
Moreover, one of the lessons of yesterday’s SCOTUS decision is that today’s oppressed religious minority may become tomorrow’s privileged majority. And somehow I don’t see the evangelical Christians, Catholics, and Mormons who were so thrilled about yesterday’s ruling being equally enthusiastic when Islam, one of the fastest-growing religions in America, becomes the dominant group in enough town councils some decades hence that prayers are offered in the name of Allah instead of Jesus Christ.