“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” — First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution
A dispute over prayers at a town meeting in a Rochester suburb made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
It shouldn’t have had to go that far. If only people treated others as they’d like to be treated, as Jesus used to say.
But that’s not what happened. So the dispute went all the way to the Supremes, who this week decided 5-4 that religious prayers at the start of municipal meetings in Greece, N.Y., do not violate the First Amendment.
I’m not a lawyer, Constitutional or otherwise. But I remember as a reporter sitting in a local town hall and feeling “excluded and disrespected” — words used by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion — when Jesus Christ was invoked at the start of what was supposed to be a secular, municipal, public meeting.
And I believe today what I thought back then: Town officials should know better.
The line separating church and state is casually blurred in this Christian nation, and a quick prayer to open a meeting may seem like a small thing. But not everyone believes in God. Not everyone who believes in a God believes in Jesus.
And what is Jesus doing in a town meeting, anyway? As a Jewish woman sitting in a government meeting, the prayer stung. It reminded me that I’m a member of a religious minority and that well-meaning people are oblivious to how that might feel. But the case isn’t about feelings. It’s about the First Amendment.
Justice Kennedy wrote that the town of Greece did not violate the First Amendment “by opening its meetings with prayer that comports with our tradition and does not coerce participation by nonadherents.”
Dissenting Justice Elena Kagan, as reported in the New York Times, could not reconcile the town’s practices “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.” Her thought was to require ‘that opening prayers are inclusive of different faiths, rather than always identified with a single religion.”
It is common for a chaplain to bless government proceedings, from Congress on down. Politicians routinely rally listeners at the close of a speech with “God Bless America,” a mini-prayer offered without reference to any god in particular. And prayers find a place in secular arenas in time of tragedy. It seems to be human nature to appeal to a higher power for things out of our control. We need all the help we can get.
However, it shouldn’t be necessary for courts and lawmakers to get involved in how a town board opens its meetings. A perfect ceremonial opening is the Pledge of Allegiance (written in 1892, with “under God” added by Congress in 1954).
Tradition aside, there’s no reason for prayers at municipal gatherings. But town board member compelled to include a prayer should be mindful that not everyone shares the same views about religion, and citizens should not feel uncomfortable in their town hall. It’s not about faith or the First Amendment. It’s about feelings, after all.
Barbara Lombardo is executive editor of The Saratogian and The Record. Her blog is Fresh Ink.