Editor's note: The following is an editorial written by the Deseret News editorial staff.
In once again legitimizing the traditional role an invocation can have in lending “gravity” to public meetings, a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday articulated some ideas that ought to be self-evident in a nation that values free speech and unfettered religious worship.
Chief among these is that allowing prayer before a meeting, even if it generally is Christian in tone, does not constitute an establishment of a government religion. Arguments to the contrary did not account for the nation’s long history of prayer at public gatherings, including daily prayers offered in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. Over more than two centuries, this history has failed to establish anything resembling a government-sanctioned church.
Another point emerging from the Supreme Court’s decision is that public prayer need not be watered down into some generic, all-inclusive and bland version of religion. Instead, so long as such prayer does not castigate nonbelievers or seek to convert them, a sectarian prayer is allowable, the court said.
The case arose when two residents of the town of Greece, New York, objected to the town’s practice of beginning its public meetings with a prayer. The ruling applies equally well to many cities across the nation that do the same.
In rejecting the residents’ claim, the high court cited the nation’s long tradition of prayer — even denominational ones — before public deliberations.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said, “The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech. 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 nonsectarian.”
Kennedy cited the first prayer given before the Continental Congress in 1774, which sounded a lot like the types of prayers being offered before City Council meetings in Greece.
“From the earliest days of the Nation, these invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds,” he wrote. “These ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion. Even those who disagree as to religious doctrine may find common ground in the desire to show respect for the divine in all aspects of their lives and being.
“Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.”
As a nation and as individuals, we all benefit from the contemplation and humility embodied in the act of prayer. Kennedy’s words affirm the truth that we are and can be “one Nation under God,” with a rich tradition of religious freedom and tolerance for all. Thankfully, this tradition continues.
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