Wednesday, May 7, 2014

All prayers or none

    This week, the nine members of the U.S. Supreme Court agreed with Justice Elena Kagan that a public forum “need not be a religion-free zone,” but five of the justices went further, trampling one of the bedrock principles of democracy.
    The court ruled in Town of Greece vs. Galloway that specifically Christian prayers said before a town council meeting do not constitute government establishment of religion, which would violate the First Amendment to the Constitution. In that town, believers of other faiths had been allowed to offer prayer, but overwhelmingly they were overtly Christian and often used proselytizing language.
    Past courts have been consistently reluctant to become prayer editors, warning lower courts, according to The Christian Science Monitor, that they should not “embark on a sensitive evaluation or ... parse the content of a particular prayer.” Prayers before bodies like Congress have been upheld as well.
    The new ruling is particularly disturbing because justices in the majority did not seem even slightly bothered by the fact that the prayers were almost always specifically Christian. Justice Anthony Kennedy dismissed the arguments of the three non-Christian justices, who found the secularity of allowed prayers bothersome, as “niggling.” (Synonyms: petty, quibbling, insignificant.)
    Kennedy’s attitude and this week’s ruling fly in the face of a fundamental value that undergirds the very concept of a Bill of Rights. The majority can make the rules only if those rules include protection for the rights of the minority. It’s a value well understood by anyone who follows one faith in a community where almost everyone else adheres to a different faith.
    Somehow, when justices are ruling on core constitutional principles rather than personal or political opinions, the justices find their way onto the same page. Unanimity, wrangled by Chief Justice Earl Warren, marked Brown vs. Board of Education in its validation that skin color didn’t matter when the Constitution said “all.” In Gibbons vs. Ogden, the federal government gained precedence over states in matters of interstate commerce by a vote of 6-0 with one abstention. This court, however, is mired in 5-4 decisions.
    Now, it is up to us to demand that our representatives either aggressively recruit prayers from every religion, even the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (look it up), or remove prayer from the agenda of public meetings and leave it in individual souls where it belongs.
    Much as the former would be amusing, the latter is the better choice.

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