Town of Greece v. Galloway

May 6, 2014

In Town of Greece v. Galloway, No. 12-696, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of prayers, explicitly religious and focused on one faith, during the ceremonial part of local governmental meetings. For complete and excellent coverage of the opinion and its import, go to the Amy Howe’s Tuesday round-up at SCOTUSblog. For a quick summary, Lyle Denniston’s survey piece, Opinion Analysis:  Prayers get a New Blessing, is the “go-to” on the page.

I read the opinions, mostly. For me, though, the issue is simple, and non-constitutional. (Frankly, some of the torturing of common sense in some constitutional analysis can make one’s head spin, although I do confess that I’m at the 35% point in Richard Posner’s new book, Reflections on Judging. Judge Posner—his day job is as a senior judge on the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago—advocates for common sense, lay-comprehensible decision making.)

Digression finished, I think the Court ought to be focused on inclusion. We have a provision in the First Amendment that prevents Congress—and the states, through the application of the 14th amendment due process clause—from “making any law respecting an establishment of religion.” Without going deep into the history of religion and its impact on the First Amendment, the drafters of the Bill of Rights were very wary about a national religion. No doubt, those drafters were Christians, and the notion that they were focused on not allowing Congress to choose one Christian sect over another may be true. (I’m not scholarly on this subject.) Certainly, though, the underlying concern involved not having a national religion, a subject with which our founders were certainly familiar.

In Town of Greece Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the opinion for the 5-4 majority, focuses on the absence of coercion in the prayer process. If no one is coerced, no religion has been established, yada, yada, yada! I mean no disrespect for Justice Kennedy, really, but he’s never walked in my shoes, or the shoes of anyone who’s not totally comfortable with references to Jesus from the podium. He, and the majority, fail to appreciate the sense of “otherness” that comes from attending a public event where someone in authority urges leaders to fulfill their duties in the name of Jesus. I felt it when Rev. Franklin Graham offered a fine invocation for President George W. Bush on January 20, 2001, until his penultimate sentence, “We pray this in the name of the Father, and of the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Spirit.” I feel it whenever I attend a public meeting and a preacher closes in the same manner. Truth be told, with a catch, I had the same feeling last Friday at a luncheon I attended for an education group in Tucson and the minister asked for a blessing in the name of Jesus. And the catch? I was a voluntary attendee at the luncheon, expecting nothing from the organization.

When we participate in governmental processes we have rights and expectations. A fair deal. Consistent application of the laws. Reasonable judgments. When someone whose faith does not recognize Jesus as the son of G-d engages with the government, he or she has a right to expect equal treatment. Certainly, the majority does not suggest directly or indirectly that believing in Jesus can affect one’s rights before the governmental body. But the majority opinion does not in any way allow for the chilling effect on a non-believer, when the meeting opens with an offering in the name of Jesus. Coercion? No. A sense of fairness about the process? Not so much, too often.

The Republic will survive in the aftermath of this decision. We will not, however, have moved forward in any way any effort to welcome the stranger, the one who is not like the many. See, Leviticus 19:34; and see, Matthew 25:35.

P.S. Although I’m a believer in a higher being of some sort or another, and am Jewish, I intend no disrespect for atheists and others when I focus on the issue of which higher being gets talked about at the beginning of public meetings. If I were King, we’d have none of this!


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