The Supreme Court’s latest ruling on religion leaves those in minority religious groups feeling on the outside looking in, while giving those in the Christian faith reason to celebrate. It is a decision that tips the balance too far in one direction.
The court ruled that the Constitution allows town boards to start their sessions with sectarian prayers, another 5-4 vote dividing the court’s more conservative members from its liberal ones.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority, said that such ceremonial prayers have a long tradition throughout American government. Indeed, the Supreme Court begins each of its sessions with the marshal of the court saying, “God save the United states and this honorable court.”
Monday’s ruling follows the lines of the court’s decision back in 1983 upholding the constitutionality of the prayer that opens each session of the State Legislature in Nebraska.
Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, who is an atheist, sued the Town of Greece, near Rochester. They claimed the prayers went against the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion. The prayers offended them and, according to Kennedy, “made them feel excluded and disrespected.” Of course, he added, “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable.”
Kennedy and the majority ultimately disagreed with a lower court determination that the town’s actions made it appear that it was endorsing Christianity. But there is clear evidence of a Christian bent to the prayers, especially considering one of the invocations delivered at a Greece Town Board meeting included “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.”
The board has made only the slightest effort to include other religions. The mood has been set on a Christian stage and, as Justice Elena Kagan said in dissent, the town’s practices could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.”
The Supreme Court decision certainly reflects the fact that we are a majority Christian nation. But we are also a nation that respects the rights of other religions. It is unfortunate that the Greece board has decided that it is acceptable, even in a small way, to make non-Christians feel like outsiders at the start of its meetings.