To begin with, let’s acknowledge the U.S. Supreme Court has held that prayers offered before meetings of Congress all the way down to City Council do not necessarily offend the First Amendment. They are, as all justices recently acknowledged, part of the fabric and tradition of American life stretching all the way back to the composing of the Constitution and the first Congress.
But that still doesn’t mean they’re a good idea.
Here in Nevada, prayers are offered before the daily sessions of the state Senate and Assembly when the Legislature is in session. People pray before meetings of the Clark County Commission and the North Las Vegas, Henderson and Las Vegas city councils. Usually, it’s a rotating list of officiants that ensures many different faith traditions are represented.
That wasn’t the case in Greece, N.Y., where the city drew from a list of local congregations, most of which were Christian. Overtly Christian prayers were the result, with only four exceptions over an 11-year period, and those only after people complained about sectarianism.
But the U.S. Supreme Court held on Monday — in Town of Greece v. Galloway — that prayer was still OK. Relying on the 1983 case of Marsh v. Chambers, the court said even overtly Christian prayers don’t violate the First Amendment, so long as there’s no attempt to convert people to a particular religion, or to denigrate other religions. In fact, the majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy said government can’t prescribe the content of prayers.
“The First Amendment is not majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech,” the ruling reads. “Once it invites prayer into the public sphere government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be non-sectarian.”
And again: “Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles all but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy.”
In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan agreed that prayer was acceptable (“…such a forum need not become a religion-free zone”), but took issue with the way Greece did it. By failing to be more inclusive, the city excluded residents who don’t share the Christian faith, she wrote. “And so a civic function of some kind brings religious differences to the fore: That public proceeding becomes (whether intentionally or not) an instrument for dividing [citizens] from adherents to the community’s majority religion, and for altering the very nature of [their] relationship with [their] government.”
Instead, Kagan argued, non-sectarian prayers offered by a rotating host of different religious practitioners offers, at least, neutrality: “The government [a citizen then] faces favors no particular religion, either by word or deed. And that government, in its various processes and proceedings, imposes no religious tests on its citizens, sorts none of them by faith, and permits no exclusion based on belief.”
But they’re all wrong.
Mixing religion and government, however slightly, is never a good idea. That’s why we adopted a First Amendment. And while tradition and early practice may show the founders didn’t believe prayers before sessions of Congress violated the First Amendment, it’s clear once you invite religion into civic life, you — for a brief time, at least — transform City Hall into a cathedral. And it doesn’t matter whose cathedral, or what the prayers say, it’s still wrong.
In that context, government cannot help but be cloaked in the robes of religion, and religion intertwined with the machinery of government. But they should not meet, since government is about maintaining order and establishing justice, while religion is about the salvation of souls. And we would do well to remember that the First Amendment was created as much to protect government from religion as to protect religion from the government.
Tradition or the affirmation of belief (even of the majority’s belief) is weak justification to permit breaching the wall that should exist between church and state.
Steve Sebelius is a Review-Journal political columnist who blogs at SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 387-5276 or SSebelius@reviewjournal.com.