ALEXANDRIA, VA — In a major decision last week on the role of religion in government, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution allows town boards to start their sessions with sectarian prayers.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in the case, Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, et al., said that Greece, a town in upstate New York, had not violated the Constitution by starting its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month,” who was almost always Christian. The prayers were ceremonial, Justice Kennedy wrote, and served to signal the solemnity of the occasion.
The decision built on one from 1983 that allowed prayers at the start of legislative sessions. Justice Kennedy said the prayers in both settings were “meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the nation¹s heritage.”
Town officials in Greece said members of all faiths, and atheists, were welcome to give the opening prayer. In practice, however, almost all of the chaplains were Christian. Some prayers were explicitly sectarian, with references, for instance, to “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.”
Two town residents sued, saying the prayers violated the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion. They said the prayers offended them and, in Justice Kennedy’s words, “made them feel excluded and disrespected.”
But, he said, the relevant constitutional question was not whether they were offended. “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable,” he wrote. “Legislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate.”
Justice Kennedy referred to history, pointing out that the same Founders who wrote the First Amendment with its prohibition on the establishment of a government religion also provided protections for religious liberty and provided money for congressional chaplains.
“Legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the pledge of allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable Court’ at the opening of this court’s sessions,” he wrote.
The separation of church and state was not meant to establish, as many today seem to believe, separation of religion and state. America was not to be a Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish nation — but it was to be a nation that recognized its dependence upon a Supreme Being. On our coins is written, “In God We Trust.” Sessions of Congress begin with prayer. The Supreme Court itself starts its meetings with prayer.
What the First Amendment really was saying has been all but forgotten. Judge Thomas Cooley, a leading constitutional scholar of the 19th century, put it this way in his Principles of Constitutional Law: “By establishment of religion is meant the setting up or recognizing of a state church, or at least the conferring upon one church of special favors and advantages which are denied to others. It was never intended by the Constitution that the government should be prohibited from recognizing religion, or that religious worship should never be provided for in cases where a proper recognition of Divine Providence in the working of government might seem to require it, and where it might be done without drawing invidious distinctions between different religious beliefs, organizations, or sects. The Christian religion was always recognized in the administration of the common law; and so far as that law continues to be the law of the land, the fundamental principles of that religion must continue to be recognized in the same cases and to the same extent as formerly.”
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This post originally appeared on Western Journalism – Informing And Equipping Americans Who Love Freedom