On May 5, the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, upholding the practice of the Town of Greece, New York, of having prayers open town board meetings. Since the practice was initiated in 1999—replacing the previous practice of a moment of silence—the prayers have been overwhelmingly Christian, with frequent explicit references to “Our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Moreover, the town did nothing to indicate that the prayers were not endorsed by the town government.
I cannot say I was optimistic about the outcome of this case, as I indicated last year (“The Looming Supreme Court Showdowns,” Free Inquiry August/September 2013, Volume 33, no. 5). In 1983, in Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court upheld official prayers in the context of state legislatures and Congress, principally on the basis that the First Congress had chaplains. With a conservative majority on the court, one could envision the Marsh decision being expanded to include local government meetings.
However, there is one clear distinction between local government meetings and sessions of Congress or state legislatures: citizens often have to participate in county or city meetings to present petitions or arguments on matters that affect them directly, whether it’s a zoning dispute, complaints about noise, or the need for another dog park, whereas they attend sessions of Congress or their state legislature only as tourists. When citizens interact directly with their government, the first order of business should not be a sectarian prayer, which sends an unmistakable message to religious minorities and the nonreligious that they are outsiders, second-class citizens.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court majority was not persuaded by this distinction. More disturbingly, the reasoning of the majority opinion displayed a contempt for the rights of nonbelievers. The majority opinion referred to the fact that religion holds an important place in the lives of “many Americans.” Well, that’s undoubtedly true, but humanists and atheists are citizens also, and it is decidedly not the role of government to endorse the religious views held by “many Americans.” Our Constitution plainly indicates that the government is to stay clear of religious matters, allowing the people to come to their own conclusions about religion without any compulsion, prodding, encouragement, or oversight by the state. Deference to the religious sentiments of the majority is precisely what the Constitution, in particular the First Amendment, is intended to prohibit.
The court majority also provided a tortuous justification for not finding sectarian Christian prayers impermissible. The majority reasoned that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to draft a generic prayer satisfactory to everyone. In addition, the majority observed that government should stay out of the business of editing prayers and censoring clergy. In a remarkable statement, the majority asserted, “Once [the government] invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates” (emphasis added). I agree completely that the government should not draft or edit prayers, but the solution to this problem is not to grant clergy a government platform to say what they want to say. Rather, the solution is to refrain from “invit[ing] prayer into the public sphere” in the first place! Effectively, the majority conceded that having official prayers at government meetings entangles the government with religion but then concluded that the solution to this unconstitutional entanglement is to ignore it—provided, of course, that “many Americans” don’t object to the practice.
Seldom have so many words been accompanied by such twisted logic to obscure the evisceration of a constitutional provision.
Although the case was wrongly decided and represents a sharp setback to church-state separation, the court’s ruling does serve a couple of useful purposes. First, it should dispel any illusion that this country is quickly becoming more accepting of the nonreligious. Sure, polls indicate some increase in our numbers and some decrease in the level of prejudice, but the nonreligious are still regarded too often as both suspect and politically toothless. It is too widely imagined that their concerns can be brushed aside with impunity. This situation is not going to change unless and until humanists, atheists, and other nonreligious people resolve to become active, protest, support the movement’s advocacy groups, and punish at the ballot box those politicians who would deny us our constitutional rights. If we are united in our efforts, changing the legal/political climate in our favor is not an impossible dream. Bear in mind that the Supreme Court’s decision was based on the narrowest of margins—a 5–4 vote. One vote the other way, and we would have been able to limit or eliminate payers at local government meetings.
But we also need to bear in mind that if another justice is added to the court’s current conservative majority, giving it a solid block of six justices, our government’s current embrace of majoritarian religious sentiment may not change for a generation. This could happen, and it may well happen if we sit on our hands.
The decision also highlighted the renewed aggressiveness of the religious Right. As mentioned above, protest over the Town of Greece’s practice started only after it abandoned a moment-of-silence to go with in-your-face sectarian prayers. This was not a case that involved some centuries-old venerable tradition. It was a case of some religious activists wanting to turn a government meeting into a pulpit—and daring anyone to do something about it. We’ve all heard the many claims by members of the Christian Right that they are being discriminated against by those horrible militant atheists. Poppycock! It’s the Christian Right that is spoiling for a fight. They are the ones trying to throw up Ten Commandments monuments or displays everywhere and continually devising schemes to try to circumvent court rulings on school prayer. Significantly, immediately after the decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a member of the Roanoke (Virginia) County Board of Supervisors stated that the board should explicitly prohibit non-Christian prayers being said during invocations.
The renewed aggressiveness of some religious groups is also evidenced by the other major Supreme Court case this term, Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby. This is the case in which some corporations are arguing that due to the religious beliefs of their owners, they should be exempt from government regulations that require employer-provided insurance to cover contraceptive care. The religious Right claims that religious liberty is imperiled by these government regulations. This is nonsense, of course. The regulations do not require anyone who objects to contraception on religious grounds to use contraception. What the religious groups really want is the right to impose their religious views on third parties, in this case, those employees who may want to use contraception.
I am writing this in late May, about fifty days before the publication of the issue of Free Inquiry in which it will appear. By the time you read this, the Supreme Court will have decided the Hobby Lobby case. If the Supreme Court upholds the right of corporations to claim a wide-ranging religious exemption from generally applicable laws and regulations, the consequences will be significant. Such a ruling would threaten one of the cornerstone principles of a secular state—namely, that one law applies to all, with n
o special preferences based on religion. Moreover, in combination with the decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, it would transform the wall separating church and state into a sieve. Religious institutions and practices would officially be granted favored status—again, provided they appeal to “many Americans.”
If we’re confronted with such a situation, we can either meekly accept it or we can unite and use all our resources to resist and reverse this pernicious coupling of government and religion. I prefer the latter course.
Ronald A. Lindsay is the CEO and president of the Center for Inquiry, a supporting organization of the Council for Secular Humanism.