Supreme Court rulingYesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the practice of local governments offering prayers at council meetings.

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.

21 Comments

  1. Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Most of the city and county governments I am aware of that invite prayers to be offered at the beginning of public meetings will allow people in the community to volunteer, on a non-discriminating basis, to offer a prayer or perform a short religious ceremony of their choice, so long as it is seeking the welfare of the community and the deliberations of the council. as for p[eople who do not subscribe to the particular religion of the person performing the prayer/religious ceremony that day, they can sit for a minute quietly out of respect for their neighbors’ beliefs. No one has a right to censor the opinions of others, including religious opinions. Anyone who is so weak-minded that simply hearing another person express a religious thought will influence their own beliefs needs to grow up. We don’t silence political speech because other people might be offended. We should not silence religious speech that is a sincere reflection of the beliefs of other members of our community.

    In my experience, Mormons are very open to religious expressions by people who belong to other religious traditions. They participate in community events along with ministers of other denominations and religions, held ini Mormon buildings or in theirs, such as the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake just a few blocks from Temple Square. Indeed, the Church donated funds to support the last major renovation of the cathedral, and Mormons volunteered to help fix up other church structures in the Salt Lake and Provo areas, including a Hindu meeting place and an African American church.

    Mormons actively support the Boy Scouts, and major Scout Jamborees often include devotional exercises led by chaplains from various faiths. Mormons work closely with Catholic Charities and with the Muslim Red Crescent organizations in donating relief aid after major disasters in places like the Philippines and Indonesia.

    Hearing a person from a different faith tradition utter a prayer is not religious oppression. Their exercise of religious freedom does not impinge upon your freedom to believe or to live your faith. The prayers from different religious faiths uttered during a presidential inauguration do not limit anyone’s freedom, and any adult citizen honors our common heritage as Americans when he or she gives respect to a neighbor’s prayer or expression of belief.

    Despite all the lawsuits brought by atheists who claim to be oppressed by hearing or seeing words from the Bible or expressions honoring divinity, I have yet to see a single one claim that they were converted to Catholicism or Buddhism or Judaism because of hearing a prayer at a presidential inauguration or read a Ten Commandments monument, any more than Democrats become Republicans by listening to Ted Cruz speak.

    • “Hearing a person from a different faith tradition utter a prayer is not religious oppression. ”

      When that person is a government official acting in an official capacity, and the prayers are blatantly sectarian (exclusionary) then it is religious impression. It is endorsement of religion by government. Such acts give the impression that the government will only serve that given faith and all others will be ignored or treated as inferiors.

      Its very typical that people confuse free exercise of religion with endorsement of religion when making arguments for public sectarian prayers.The major problem is that the people who most want prayers in such public settings are the ones least likely to be respectful to religious beliefs besides their own.

  2. “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.”

    I think you’re going even farther than the dissenting justices would go. According to Justice Alito (via a paraphrase), “the difference between the Court’s opinion and Justice Kagan’s dissent turned on disagreements about the proper interpretation of one or two facts.”

    These facts seemed to include the question, for example, of whether the town made sufficient efforts to be inclusive (they chose clergy to pray by randomly selecting from a list of local worship houses).

    In fact, Justice Kagan made a point of saying that she was not contending that prayers should be disallowed in legislative meetings. Rather, her decision was entirely contingent on her opinion that the town did not make sufficient efforts to be inclusive, by comparison to defendants in other court cases.

    Taking the stance that religion be removed entirely from government meetings is actually quite extreme, and I’ve rarely heard that opinion from individuals who (wisely) see a unique civic, historical or sociological value in religion.

    In response to your last accusation: as a Mormon, I would welcome prayers from local imams in government meetings. I would much prefer that sort of prayer to a bland, worldly invocation, or to none at all.

    Oh, and as a believing Mormon, I tend to expect of myself agreement with the church to which I am bound by covenant, and to sustain and defend the public opinions of the ordained servants of Jesus Christ.

      • I might not “welcome” those prayers, but my distaste for Satanism or evangelical-sarcastic atheism would never lead me to approve of the removal of religion from government meetings altogether.

        In the very town legislature in question in this court case, by the way, a Wiccan prayed in 2008.

    • You are right, the real point is that the sectarian nature of the prayers given were the part of offense. Deliberately sectarian prayers (especially from monotheistic religions) are exclusionary by nature.

      Generalized, ecumenical prayers don’t give the impression of exclusion and such prayers embrace all faiths. It may not be strong enough for people who want to give the impression of a government run by the hand of their version of God. However, it gives the least offense to all.

  3. SanAntonioRob

    The key is in the phrasing. As you say, “the government cannot make a law respecting an ‘establishment of religion.'” Participating in public prayer is not “making a law”, even when the prayer begins a session where laws are made.

    Free speech is not abridged in public meetings, except in extreme cases such as overly obscene language, threats of injury, etc. It’s not abridged even when the viewpoints are extremely offensive to others (pro-abortion opinions for some, anti-gay viewpoints for others). Why should free exercise of religion be abridged in public meetings, except in extreme cases? A prayer where various faith denominations are invited to lead can hardly be called an extreme case.

    Extreme, in my opinion, is when we go to great lengths to make religion the outcast. Hi fives before meetings? Great! Group hugs? Wierd, but allowable. Inspirational thoughts? Awesome! Pledging allegiance to a flag and the country it represents? Pretty much required. But a simple prayer, even if everyone participating wants to? “Not in my house” (complete with the Mutombo finger wag).

  4. I’m concerned how this will actually play out across the country. In certain areas a particular religion dominates. How will the minority religions fare in this and what about non-believers? Will there be an equitable way for them to rotate to allow room for everyone? I would hope so. It’s really going to highlight minority religious/non-religious people in these councils…not sure how that’s going to work out.

    And it sure didn’t take long for this guy to run with the decision and come to his own definition of what type of prayer will be acceptable.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/2014/05/06/roanoke-county-supervisor-after-yesterdays-supreme-court-ruling-were-only-going-to-allow-christian-invocation-prayers/

    • The purpose of the lawsuit was that they failed to handle the prayers in an equitable way to allow room for everyone. The problem with entangling sectarian religious interests with the political is it always leads to discriminatory behavior.

  5. I don’t understand why Muslims, Hindus, atheists, and Buddhists must be sitting out in the hallway–that’s preposterous. Explain your assumption about the tenets of their faith which precludes them from praying with people of other faiths. There is no religion that teaches such silliness.

    • Jana Riess

      Buddhism, for example, is a nontheistic religion; why should Buddhists be expected to pray in public to a God they do not believe in? In Islam, Jesus is a prophet but not the Son of God; Muslims do not pray to Jesus or pray in his name. Atheists do not pray at all.

      • I wonder if Micah was asking why people with those beliefs would not be able to listen to other prayers–not so much why they wouldn’t want to pray themselves.

  6. Some reasons Christians should have been dreading the ruling:

    1. First, it leaves a few deeply resentful, with hearts hardened to Christianity.

    2. Evangelicals are mistrusted. Given the deep differences among Americans, evangelical voices have rightly appealed to pluralism as the means for citizens to coexist peacefully, respecting disagreement while working together on those things that do unite us as a nation. But this principled pluralism is made to be a lie when evangelicals employ the state to promote Christian prayers.

    3. It creates an overly cozy relationship between government and willing local clergy. That the Christian faith receives succor from the city’s prayer policy makes it less likely that the church will raise its prophetic voice to criticize the town board when it undertakes bad policies or its officials misbehave.

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/may-web-only/carl-esbeck-supreme-court-prayer-greece-galloway.html?start=2

  7. One major problem with this post, and a problem with the majority opinion of the decision, is that they both take the position that the Establishment Clause should be applied below the federal level at all. Of all the justices, AFAIK only Clarence Thomas got it right by asserting that the Establishment Clause shouldn’t be Incorporated against state and local governments.

    The Establishment Clause did more than forbid the federal government from establishing a national church, it also protected the states from federal interference in their own established churches. To now impose that limitation on state and local governments makes as much sense as using the 10th Amendment to limit state action – i.e., none at all that I can see.

    • You have forgotten about the 14th Amendment. The Equal Protection clause allows the Bill of Rights to be applied to state and local levels of government.

      The SCOTUS interpretations of the 10th Amendment have always been for expansive Federal power when it came to issues of civil liberties. It is not the panacea for “state’s rights” as libertarians and their ilk like to think it is.

      State and local governments more or less lost the right to be the final arbiters of civil liberties after the Civil War.

      [Btw it is never a good idea to reference Clarence Thomas when making an argument about Constitutionality. He is one of the least consistent justices on the bench and most likely to give a ruling aligned with a desired political outcome]

      • I didn’t say that Thomas was always right, or even consistently right. I said that he was the only one that got it right in this case.

        And no, I didn’t forget the 14th Amendment. I said that the 14th Amendment’s Incorporation of the Bill of Rights shouldn’t apply in this case, because the Establishment Clause protected the right of the citizens of the states to act through their governments, just as the 10th Amendment does. There has been a lot of ink spilled over just how Incorporation should work, from not at all to everything no matter how nonsensical. The approach that makes sense to me is to Incorporate the majority of the BoR that deal with individual rights while leaving aside those parts that have to be seriously distorted to apply against the states. Like the Establishment Clause.

        And as for the 10th Amendment, it has not so much been interpreted it in an expansive way as ignore it entirely. When it has been put to use, it’s been to limit the federal government to its enumerated purposes and prevent federal commandeering of state resources or interference in state government operation. It hasn’t been used enough, but it’s use has been generally correct.

        • Thomas was full of it. The man is always trying to find excuses not to exercise Federal power in a civil liberties context.

          Why wouldn’t the 14th Amendment apply here?

          The Establishment clause is no different from the other portions of the 1st Amendment in its application to state and local government. There is no purpose for making such an exception. Violations of the Establishment Clause are attacks on civil liberties, violations of Equal Protection under the law. Issues clearly within the Federal Court’s jurisdiction.

          Violation of the Establishment Clause means the government is acting in a way which is either discriminatory or gives the appearance of doing so. Nothing screams denial of equal protection under the law issue more than government putting up a big sign saying “We only serve people of X faith, all others will be disregarded”

          In fact in practice, the 14th Amendment has been the reason virtually all Establishment Clause cases are ever heard. The violations seldom come from Federal government actions. They virtually always come from state and local governments. Levels of government where it is far easier to mobilize religious groups to push through acts and legislation engaging in government sanctioned sectarian discrimination.

          The 10th Amendment is invoked far often in discussion than actually applied in rebuking Federal power. It is almost never invoked when the issue is civil liberties because Equal Protection overrides vague notions of Federalism in most situations.

          • Of course the 10th Amendment is almost never invoked when the issue is civil liberties, why should it? It’s a little tough to find a judge that believes there should be no Incorporation of the Bill of Rights at all, so since the 14th Amendment is the primary vehicle of civil rights cases, and since the idea of somehow Incorporating the 10th Amendment against the states is ludicrous, it simply doesn’t come up. Which is my point, Incorporating the Establishment Clause is equally ludicrous because, like the 10th Amendment, it was intended to protect the states, and the people to make their own decisions as bodies of state citizens, through their state governments. For the protection of religion from government interference at the individual level there is the Free Exercise Clause, which *should* be Incorporated against the states.

          • The Establishment Clause has never been interpreted as a protection of government power at any level. It certainly was not meant to “protect the states”. it was meant to hobble certain actions by government officials. There has never been a viable legal interpretation of the Establishment clause which was as limited as you suggest.

            As I pointed out Establishment Clause is very much a civil liberties issue. Establishment of religion by government attacks the free exercise of religion. One cannot exist without the other. Government which endorses religion, violates the establishment clause inevitably leads to sectarian discrimination. It attacks free exercise of religion.

          • Naturally the Supreme Court has gotten the Establishment Clause wrong. For generations it wasn’t an issue, first because Washington had no interest in either imposing a national religion or interfering is state religious matters, and then because the 14th Amendment itself was mostly ignored when it wasn’t being abused to prevent states from exercising control over their own economies (the 10th Amendment being ignored during the same period). Then when the Court finally started making use of the 14th Amendment again it was dominated by Perfectionists, more interested in what the Constitution *ought* to mean instead of what it *does* mean. By now, their understanding is locked into precedent and will take some major work to reverse. It’s possible that other justices besides Thomas understand that, but are unwilling to say so flat out, preferring a more incremental approach if they can manage it.

            And no, an establishment of religion by government does not attack the free exercise of religion. If it did, we wouldn’t need both clauses. The first Congress could simply have prohibited interference in the free exercise of religion and left it at that.

            You are right about one thing, though, the Establishment Class was indeed intended to hobble certain actions by government officials – Congressmen, from imposing a national church or interfering with state religious establishments.

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