Supreme Court OK's prayer before Town Council meetings

In a surprise decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a town in New York can open its council meetings with a prayer, citing the long tradition of saying a prayer prior to the opening of governing bodies.

As Lyle Denison of SCOTUS Blog points out, this ruling alters the constituionality argument of "official" prayer:

Stopping just short of abandoning a historic barrier to religion in government activity, a deeply divided Supreme Court ruled on Monday that local governments may open their meetings with prayers that are explicitly religious and may turn out to be largely confined to expressing the beliefs of one faith.

Narrowly defining what is not allowed in such prayers, the Court said they may not be used to praise the virtues of one faith and may not cast other faiths or other believers in a sharply negative light.  Courts have no role in judging whether individual prayers satisfy that test, but can only examine a “pattern of prayer” to see whether it crossed the forbidden constitutional line and became a form of “coercion.”

The majority clearly moved the “coercion” test to the forefront of analyzing when government and religion are too closely intertwined.  The alternative test — whether government action “endorsed” a particular faith — was nearly cast aside as taking too little account of the role of religion in America’s history and civic traditions.

The Court’s majority was divided in the case, but only on how “coercion” is to be defined in a constitutional sense.  Three Justices said that test is satisfied if a town’s governing body ordered the public to join in prayer, criticized “dissidents” who did not share the prayer’s beliefs, or indicated that official action would be or was influenced by whether someone did or did not take part in the prayer exercise.  That group spoke through the lead opinion, written by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy — long an advocate of the “coercion” approach and long a critic of the “endorsement” test.  His plurality opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., and Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.

Two Justices argued that a “coercion” test would be satisfied only if a local government had actually compelled people to be followers of one faith, such as requiring people to go to religious services or to pay taxes to pay for religious institutions.  They spoke through an opinion by Justice Clarence Thomas, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia on that point alone.

It always struck me as bizarre that someone could actually believe that government was "endorsing" Christianity by following a long-standing tradition of placing a creche in a public place or holding an Easter egg hunt on public grounds. Substituting "coercion" instead of "endorsement" would seem to be a reasonable and clear standard to follow.

Justice Kennedy should be congratulated for writing this:

"Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith," Justice Kennedy wrote.

Imagine that. A Supreme Court justice treating the American people like adults! Of course, for those who want religion completely out of American public life will always see the Christian bogey man tryiing to force Americans to accept their religion. Kennedy says "Grow up."

The Greece, NY situation has some unique factors, including the fact that only Christian churches were in town. But in other cities, there's no reason why other faiths couldn't be represented and give the opening benediction.

Assuming  we're most "adult citizens."


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