Prayer for the People

Prayer for the People

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway et al. The case arose over prayers before the monthly town board meetings in Greece, prayers that were almost exclusively by Christians (of various denominations). The objection raised by Galloway et al. was that such a predominantly Christian character to the invocations violated the 1st Amendment protection against the establishment of religion.

This is a familiar claim to anyone who has been observing the practice of “invoking” God in prayer at the meetings of public bodies. Objections framed in terms of the Establishment Clause have been raised by various individuals and groups, whether out of a sense of mistreatment of their faith tradition, out of a rejection of religious practices in the public arena, or out of rejection of religion itself.

Last week, in a close decision (5-4, with both a divided majority and a divided minority on the grounds and findings), the court upheld Greece’s practice of prayer at the start of town board meetings, reversing a federal appeals court decision against the practice. The decision, as long as it stands, appears to me to provide fairly broad protection of the practice of an invocation before a public

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board meeting such as a city council.

That protection is grounded in three key ideas:

  1. The Establishment Clause cannot be read, historically, to prohibit invocations at the beginning of public meetings, nor can it be read as requiring “generic” prayers without reference to any particular understanding of God. The very Congress that drafted the Establishment Clause also made sure that Congress had chaplains who were paid with taxpayer dollars to, among other things, pray at the beginning of meetings of the House and Senate. From that day to this, the practice of prayer before public meetings has been widely accepted, and very many such prayers over the decades have made reference to God in terms at least somewhat specific to a particular creed or set of creeds.
  2. Arguing that the invocations must, as a matter of constitutional requirement, reflect the religious sentiments of the majority or some consensus among the people misunderstands the way the First Amendment works. To quote the majority opinion: “The First Amendment is not a majority rule.”
  3. Invocations at the start of legislative meetings have a particular function in relation to those meetings, and it is that function that forms the standard against which prayers are to be judged and, when appropriate, rejected. Again, quoting from the majority opinion: “Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function.”

Cities that have faced lawsuits or been threatened with them over the practice of invocations likely can breathe a sigh of relief. Cities that suspended the practice of invocations out of fear of litigation may restore their place on the agenda with at least some confidence.

One hopes, however, that either preserving or reinstituting this practice will be done with wisdom and sensitivity. As the court notes, there is a legitimate function these invocations may serve, as they “lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage.” But there also are functions they probably ought not to serve. If they “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion,” the court warns, the fate of a such a practice would be likely to be different than that of the Town of Greece’s practice.

Which probably comes down to acknowledging that we are a religious nation (still), that religion and prayer are very much a part of our cultural and social fiber, and that, as a consequence, prayer has a proper place in the public arena. But prayer should strike the themes for which we come together, and be sensitive to those over whom one is praying and on behalf of whom one speaks to God. Such prayers will offend some, no doubt. But if they are spoken with sincere good will toward all, and a desire that God (however God is understood) would look kindly upon those assembled to do the public’s business, they are a fitting beginning to the work of serving the public.