Exclude me in your prayers

A Supreme Court ruling misunderstands religious freedom

I have long wondered why God, who for decades has been routinely invited to watch over the General Assembly and guide its deliberations, has asked Mike Madigan to do that job for him. Now I know. The prayers recited by invited clergy to open legislative sessions in Illinois weren’t specific enough to make clear which of the many gods worshiped in this state was being addressed. The U.S. Supreme Court has fixed that by ruling in Town of Greece v Galloway that explicitly Christian preaching can be a constitutionally acceptable part of official government proceedings such as state legislatures and city councils.

Even for a high court that has recently proved itself capable of high foolishness, this is a remarkable conclusion. The decision contributes to a subtle but real perversion of the political process. It mistakes the nature and effect of contemporary religious feeling. And it demeans the act of prayer itself.

This week I will address the most obvious, and probably most insidious impact of the ruling. As libertarian columnist Stephen Chapman remind us, it is possible that in 20 or 30 years some U.S. towns will have Muslim, Buddhist or Hindu majorities. Fremont, a city of more than 200,000 on San Francisco Bay, is a good example of the trend. An estimated 136 languages are spoken at home by children going to Fremont schools, and non-native-born whites – Indians, Pakistanis, Vietnamese and Chinese mainly, plus smaller group of a dozen other nationalities – already make up well over half of the city’s population. “If Christians attending the local city council meeting [in such a town] had to sit through a prayer to Allah or Vishnu,” writes Chapman, “they would most likely feel excluded and offended. But somehow [the court majority] think non-Christians should have to put up with the equivalent without complaint or recourse.”

I would not like to say that the justices who were in the majority in this 5-4 ruling do not believe that Americans of such origins are not fully American and thus not deserving of the full constitutional protection against state-sanctioned religion. I would not like to say it, but I can believe it. The only reason I can see why the justices voting with the majority chose to privilege our traditional white European cultures over our newer brown and yellow ones at a time when the U.S. is becoming less and less Christian is because the U.S. is becoming less and less Christian.

Perhaps their blinkered view owes to simple lack of imagination. Our Gang of Five remind me of Henry Fielding’s wonderful Mr. Thwackum, one of Tom Jones’ tutors, who pronounces, “When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England.” As several recent cases have suggested, the justices  seem to be as socially isolated as Fielding’s divine. “It’s not legal blindness,” argued Dahlia Lithwick about the ruling. “It’s more like life-blindness.”  

S.M., one of the anonymous contributors to The Economist’s Democracy in America blog, took note of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s remark that the use of ceremonial, legislative prayer to coerce or intimidate others would still offend the Constitution. I should hope so. But Kennedy then proceeded to define “coerce” and “intimidate” very narrowly to include the public chastisement of dissenters or haranguing those present with lengthy disquisition on religious dogma.

I have often been told that these ceremonial prayers are meaningless. It’s just for show, so it’s said, and nonbelievers should just ignore them. That was largely true of the practice as circumscribed by previous court rulings, which limited it to expressions of what Galloway dismisses as “generic theism.” But as Ed Kilgore noted in Washington Monthly, “Corporate prayer is meaningless if it does not invoke the beliefs of the community for which it is offered.” Quite true – and the whole point of the new ruling is to make those prayers meaningful by making them explicitly Christian, which makes it plain that those present who are not Christians are not part of the community.

Such prayer, adds Kilgore (himself raised a Southern Baptist) “belongs in gatherings of believers and those who for whatever reason – say attendance at a wedding or funeral – are voluntarily participating in a religious event.” The problem is that a citizen’s attendance at public meetings often is not voluntary. I bow my head during prayer offered in a church out of respect for the setting; I refuse to do so in a city hall, out of principle.

Kennedy & Co. concede that a nonbeliever cannot be compelled to bow her head while believers seated around her pray as she waits to ask her alderman for a street party permit. But apparently she can be compelled to mimic such rituals or risk stares and muttered insults for not doing so. That is not an acceptable price to make citizens pay to participate in their own government. I like to think that’s why the Springfield city council does not routinely open its sessions with prayer. Every citizen should be made to feel welcome in the halls of government, not merely tolerated.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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