More than 30 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the Nebraska state legislature, upholding lawmakers’ ability to open their sessions with a Christian prayer. The same issue, albeit somewhat more nuanced, was recently left to the high court justices to decide – and once again, they determined such an invocation is not unconstitutional.
The case stemmed from a 15-year practice among city officials in the small town of Greece, N.Y. According to reports, three residents – a Jewish citizen and two atheists – objected to the fact that the board typically began meetings with a Christian prayer, suggesting the observance violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause.
Since the petitioners said anyone wishing to address the council is required to attend, this case in effect forced non-Christians to engage in a prayer with which they could not relate.
In a 5-4 vote along ideological lines, the Supreme Court found that the board’s ceremonial invocation is not unconstitutional.
As Justice Anthony Kennedy – often the deciding vote in such cases – wrote in the majority’s decision, opening a public meeting with a prayer is a longstanding American tradition.
“The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers,” he concluded.
Of course, the court’s four leftist justices saw the case differently.
“Greece’s town meetings involve participation by ordinary citizens,” Justice Elena Kagan wrote, “and the invocations given – directly to those citizens – were predominantly sectarian in content.”
It is worth noting that the Obama administration sided with the town board on the issue, as did nearly half of the states and 119 U.S. legislators. Lawmakers explained that the U.S. Congress, from its inception, opened sessions with a prayer.
While the First Amendment clearly prohibits the government from endorsing a particular faith, there has been a noticeable trend among non-Christians in recent years to prevent the majority from acknowledging God in public. The majority decision in this case clearly encapsulates what many Americans of all faiths recognize as our founders’ true intention.
Photo credit: Daren Jessip (Flickr)