Prayer by Popular Vote?

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on May 5, 2014, that local governments can, under certain conditions, open their meetings with prayers—even if those supplications to the deity are Christian most of the time.

I can’t say I was surprised. Americans United for Separation of Church and State sponsored the Town of Greece v. Galloway case on behalf of two plaintiffs in Greece, New York, one Jewish and one atheist. We knew that a key to winning the case would be to persuade Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is often the pivotal swing voter on church-state cases, that such prayers were coercive in nature.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to win him over this time. Kennedy is sensitive to religious coercion in the public school setting, but he apparently doesn’t see it as a problem in local government because it’s usually adults who attend such meetings.

Kennedy, who authored the Greece opinion, went so far as to assert that a person who doesn’t like the prayer can just leave the room. This seems a bit naïve to me. If you are attending a meeting of local government to ask for something—enforcement of zoning laws or better lighting on your street, for example—you’re not likely to run the risk of offending the people who are in a position to help you by walking out on their prayer. Chances are, you’ll just go along with it.

That’s just one problem with the ruling. The Greece decision is also tone deaf to the rights of nonbelievers and religious minorities. It’s out of step with the shifting religious/philosophical demographics of the nation.

Yes, it’s a bad ruling. It’s also one that I believe will be repudiated someday. The time will come when the Greece ruling is looked at as one of the high court’s worst church-state opinions. It is simply the wrong ruling at the wrong time.

But for now we’re stuck with it. So what’s next?

We must begin by facing up to the decision’s shortcomings. In many respects, this ruling leaves some key questions unanswered. For example, in the majority opinion, Kennedy said that certain types of prayers can still be problematic. The purpose of legislative prayer, Kennedy opined, is to elevate government proceedings and provide solemnity. Prayers that fail to reach this lofty goal—such as supplications that attack nonbelievers or members of other faiths—might still be considered violations.

We’ll undoubtedly see more litigation over this issue. Some fundamentalists just can’t help themselves when it comes to pre-meeting prayers and sometimes attack rival faiths (or nonbelief).

Kennedy’s opinion also makes it clear that local government officials may not direct or compel people to take part in prayer. And the prayers are supposed to take part before the substance of the meetings, not as part of the deliberative, legislative process.

But the most interesting feature of the opinion may be the opening it provides to humanists and members of religious minorities.

Officials in the town of Greece insisted that they had an open-door policy when it came to prayer. Anyone was welcome to offer a prayer or an invocation before the council, they insisted, including agnostics and atheists. They argued that most prayer-givers were Christian because most people in town are Christian.

They were being a bit disingenuous there. In fact, town officials had been relying on Christians for prayer over and over and only reached out to a handful of non-Christians after Americans United complained about the lack of diversity.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court accepted the town’s argument. This means that in other communities where there is a prayer policy saying all are welcome, the door has now been flung wide open to all members of America’s faith and philosophical communities.

Humanists, atheists, Wiccans, Pagans, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims and others have the same right to the microphone as their Christian counterparts. If officials in Greece and other cities really want diversity, let’s give them that. Let them hear from the range of religious and nonreligious thought that this nation has to offer.

Americans United has announced a new initiative, “Operation Inclusion,” designed in part to ensure that conservative Christianity doesn’t become the default prayer position for towns across the United States. We’re offering a model prayer policy, tips for how to approach local lawmakers, and even a sample inclusive invocation. (The American Humanist Association is also offering training and help for activists who want to deliver nonreligious invocations before local government meetings.)

Moreover, AU is offering legal firepower. If community leaders claim to have an all-comers policy when it comes to prayer but then refuse to extend time at the microphone to members of certain traditions, we’ll see to it that the policy changes.

This type of work is important because the high court’s decision has spawned no small amount of confusion. Days after the opinion was issued, a supervisor in Roanoke County, Virginia, said he’d like to implement a “Christians only” prayer policy because, he insisted, the nation was founded as Christian.

In Sussex County, Delaware, two officials began plotting to open all meetings with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer—a practice a federal court had invalidated prior to the ruling in Greece.

Other examples reached AU’s office indicating that some local officials remain unclear on exactly what they can and can’t do. Add to the mix the bad information being circulated by religious right legal groups and the stage is set for disaster.

The Supreme Court majority may believe it has resolved this matter, but additional litigation is probably inevitable. Additionally, as the nation shifts and the United States becomes a more secular, tolerant place (it’s happening, slowly but surely!) this ruling will be increasingly unworkable. The culture is getting ahead of the courts, and the culture will lead.

The Greece decision is a dangerous embrace of a “majority rules” vision of government-backed prayer and a celebration of religion as a “ceremonial” prop and tool of government, neither of which is acceptable in the nation we are becoming. In short, this ruling is out of step with the times and won’t stand over the long haul.

But until it falls, the Greece decision has the potential to cause much mischief and relegate millions of Americans to a kind of second-class status in their own communities.

There’s only one way to mitigate that: humanists must join with progressive Christians and members of minority faiths to bring as much inclusion and diversity as possible to the halls of local government.