THE SEPARATION of church and state always has demanded difficult line-drawing. That hard necessity was given short shrift by the near-flippancy with which the Supreme Court last week dismissed the concerns of minority religious or non-religious Americans, whose views must be counted as equally sincere and equally legitimate before the law.
The case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, concerned a hamlet in Upstate New York that in 1999 began inviting local ministers to offer prayers before town board meetings. Nearly all were Christian, and many offered invocations with explicitly sectarian messages and imagery, including references to Jesus on the cross. Though Greece had no long-established tradition of legislative prayer, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy nevertheless channeled the Founders to justify rejecting concerns from those who — with reason, in our view — felt uncomfortable having to sit through government-sponsored sermons simply to petition their representatives.
The Founders’ views on this matter are more complicated than members of the majority admit. Justice Kennedy nevertheless emphasized that the time-honored point of legislative prayer is to promote solemnity and unity before moving to fractious lawmaking. “The reasonable observer,” he wrote, “understands that its purposes are to lend gravity to public proceedings and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens.” The justice went on to observe that “many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by [religious] precepts.”
The key word there is “many.” The religious views of the many deserve no more official acknowledgment than those of the few. Yet that is often the result of the sort of legislative prayer Justice Kennedy extols. His narrative of solemnity and unity may resonate if everyone at government meetings is Christian, or monotheist, or a believer at all. But imagine the perspective of a Hindu, a Jew, an agnostic or an atheist attending town board meetings. How could they fail to get the message that they are eccentric or inferior if they do not share in the officially acknowledged creed, or that they would have an easier time addressing their government if they believed in the right higher power, or any kind of higher power?
Justice Kennedy writes in glowing terms about the virtues of acknowledging the divine. We are happy for him if religion gives him comfort or inspiration. But many Americans do not accept that such a thing as the divine exists, let alone feel a sense of gravity from its invocation. For many Americans — and how many should hardly matter — legislative prayer insults rather than inspires, alienates rather than unites.
The town of Greece would better live up to this nation’s founding principles if it did away with legislative prayer. This would not banish religion from public discourse; when it came time to express personal beliefs, individual lawmakers could articulate sincere religious views in speeches using their own legislative time. But a town’s official procedures should be as religiously neutral as possible.