May 5
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Today, the Supreme Court ruled that local city councils can start their meetings with prayers, even if those prayers are predominantly those of one particular faith. Anyone familiar with previous rulings in similar cases wouldn’t have been surprised at the ruling, nor the fact that it was a 5-4 decision, with the Court’s conservatives in the majority and its liberals in the minority.

The case is about the borders of the Constitution’s separation of church and state. But the ruling is about the privilege of the majority, the privilege to define your own beliefs, traditions, and practices as simply the water in which we all swim. If you’re in that majority, you tend to be shocked when anyone even questions whether those practices ought to be imposed on everyone and sponsored by the state.

In this case, the town of Greece, New York, holds prayers before its city council meetings, and those prayers have almost all been Christian. When the practice was challenged, the city’s response was essentially that all the churches in town are Christian, so why should anyone object?

There are some nontheists who believe it’s important to fight all of these battles — that the separation of church and state means that government shouldn’t be sponsoring religious displays or expressions of faith at all. I’m a little less doctrinaire, perhaps because I’m both a non-believer and a member of a minority religious group. If you grow up that way, you get used to putting up with constant messages that you’re not part of the dominant culture and that your history and ideas are just not going to be represented except in the corners of life that you and yours carve out. So a lot of things roll off you, or you find ways to register your own silent objections without making a public fuss.

But as Justice Kagan’s dissent in this case made clear, there are times when a member of the minority shouldn’t have to submit to the majority’s traditions and practices, and a city council meeting — when you may be there to plead a case before your elected representatives on a matter of government policy — is one of them.  Kagan posits that if a citizen attends such a meeting where there is a prayer from a faith not her her own, the following will happen:

She then must make known her dissent from the common religious view, and place herself apart from other citizens, as well as from the officials responsible for the invocations. 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 her from adherents to the community’s majority religion, and for altering the very nature of her relationship with her government.

Now let’s take an example from another case. In 2010, the Court ruled in Salazar v. Buono that the Veterans of Foreign Wars could erect a war memorial on public land that consisted of a cross. During oral arguments, Antonin Scalia was positively stunned that the plaintiff’s lawyer would argue that the cross is a Christian symbol.

“The cross doesn’t honor non-Christians who fought in the war?” he asked. The lawyer responded that he had never seen a cross in a Jewish cemetery. “I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead the cross honors are the Christian war dead,” Scalia shot back. “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion!” To Scalia, the cross is for everyone. He found it impossible to put himself in the place of someone whose traditions were different from his own. From his perspective in the majority, nobody should be bothered by submitting to the majority’s way.

Somewhat ironically, those who advocate for more state sponsorship of religion almost always do so in generic terms. They don’t say we need more Jesus in public schools, they say we need more God. They say that because they believe it will be more persuasive to people of other faiths, and precisely because they know that if more “God” got into public schools or state-sponsored events, it would be their God.

But I wonder how they’d feel if it weren’t. For instance, Dearborn, Michigan has a large Muslim population. Would people be okay with every city council meeting starting with a prayer by an imam, or with cheerleaders at the high school making banners with praise for Allah? In other words, how would they feel about religion getting entwined with government if it weren’t their religion?

If I were a minister and I got asked to offer a prayer in a context like a city council meeting, I would offer a nonsectarian one, precisely because there might be people of different faiths, or people who don’t believe in any deity, participating. I’d want it to be an opportunity for unity and inclusion, not exclusion. The city council meeting wouldn’t be the appropriate place for proselytizing, whether the Supreme Court says it’s legal or not. Context matters, and treating other people with respect — as though your perspective is not the only one that counts — would demand it. But most people don’t seem to feel this way — so long as they’re in the majority.