The following was featured as a guest column in the Livingston County Press Argus Sunday morning.
You are welcome to post comments here at the blog or at the newspaper post here.
Public Prayer and The Supreme Court
This month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case revolving around the constitutionality of conducting prayer at the start of local government meetings.
It has been argued that after a 1983 ruling, Marsh v. Chambers, some recent prayer practices of the New York town of Greece are unconstitutional. To assess if the practices violate the First Amendment, as the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals found, we must consider both the establishment clause and the free-exercise clause.
Yes, the First Amendment does say, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” but it also adds, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Our nation’s forefathers came to this land not merely to escape state religion such as Anglicanism (establishment) but also to leave behind the prohibitions against their religious conduct in England and Europe (free exercise).
Based on the First Amendment, how should prayers in the context of public government meetings be regulated? In short, they should not be regulated.
Let’s take a step back and evaluate which outcome would best maintain freedom of religion. If the Supreme Court rules to allow prayer to continue, will those who hold alternate religious beliefs (or even nonreligious beliefs) have their freedom curtailed? Hardly.
A dissenting mind might suffer indigestion through listening to a religious invocation with which he or she might strongly disagree. But their freedom is intact. The act of prayer at the outset of a government meeting does not establish religion. No law is passed, nor is there any consequence from the state when an individual expresses his or her liberty to silently stand by.
However, if any person is told that their prayer is no longer permitted in the United States and that he or she may not speak their conscience out loud, that person’s freedom to exercise religion has been prohibited. What consequence or penalty would be just for praying an offensive prayer? Who will decide what prayer was proper? Our founders paid a costly price to establish the freedom of religion in this nation.
If one grants, then, that prayer ought to be maintained, the more difficult question is, “In what manner should prayer be maintained?” Again, I say, in a manner free of regulation. Any regulation of prayer, toward which Marsh (1983) leans, will of necessity establish a law of what is proper prayer as a religious exercise in public.
This is something the court’s oral arguments demonstrated to be unresolvable. The Supreme Court strained to the point of hilarity about what would or would not be “sufficiently nonsectarian.”
In my opinion, the Supreme Court should continue to permit men and women to express their religious beliefs verbally in any context that they choose.
It will be argued, “Won’t some people be offended?” Yes, perhaps. But, aren’t we all going to be offended at some point in life?
As a Christian, I actually want to hear from those who differ with me. Even if we disagree, I keep an open mind, and I will not be offended that we’re different. I am even willing to relinquish my preferences for the sake of the preservation of liberty.
Our goal with regard to religious speech and prayer should not be to keep from offending some, but to maintain liberty for all. Ironically, trying so hard to prevent offense through regulation actually leads to intolerance.
So what should happen with prayer in public and at the start of government meetings? The same thing that has happened for 200-plus years in our land since the framing of the Constitution— men and women should be permitted to pray without fear when invited. Prayer should continue unregulated not because it is in our history, but because it is a principled practice of liberty.
At times, men or women may disagree with one another, but at least we are free.