The Unanswered Question
Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, the Supreme Court has rendered its decision in the Town of Greece v. Galloway case, and upheld the right of a small town in upstate New York to begin sessions of open town business with sectarian prayers which are virtually always Christian in nature. This, of course, opens the door for other government entities to do likewise, eviscerating the “wall of separation” between church and state that Thomas Jefferson said was “absolutely essential in a free society”. Even in dissent, Justice Kagan got it wrong; she argued that a prayer in and of itself was not unconstitutional, but the practice in the Town of Greece does not pass constitutional muster because the Town has not made strong enough efforts to have a wide variety of religions represented in its meetings’ opening prayers, instead almost always having the prayer led by a Christian clergyman expressing Christian beliefs. This reasoning ignores the rights of both non-believers and those with religious beliefs (e.g. Wiccans or Scientologists) that are not generally recognized as being “mainstream”. Of course, anyone can leave the meeting room when the prayer begins and come back in when it is over, but how could anyone who does so feel confident that they would receive fair and equal treatment from the Town’s officials who will see them leave when the prayer begins?
But the above question focuses on whether there is potential harm to the individuals who challenged the constitutionality of the opening prayer, which there most certainly is. But there’s a flip side to this question that most commentators (and the Court itself) seem to be ignoring, i.e. what harm would befall the Town of Greece if the Court prohibited the prayer? The business of the Town, after all, is purely civil and secular. In what way would the absence of an opening prayer prevent the Town from going about its business? None that I can see. Does the Town have any compelling interest in starting its meetings with a prayer? Again, none that I can see. Even if the Court wants to preserve an individual’s right to pray (and remember, individuals have Freedom of Religion; municipalities do not), this has nothing to do with an official Town prayer. Any individual, whether a member of the Town government or simply a citizen with reason to attend a Town meeting, has the right to pray before going to the meeting, or even at the meeting, if they do it silently and to themselves. Why is it necessary to the proper functioning of Town government to have an organized sectarian prayer that everyone says together to start their meetings? In his Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6) Jesus said “And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites; they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward…But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you”. Why are the good Christians and patriotic Americans of the Town of Greece listening to neither their God nor their Constitution?