Despite a Supreme Court ruling in 1983 that said, "…in light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society," people have continued to challenge such practices. Now, one of those challenges has found its way again to the Supreme Court and will be decided during the session that began Monday.
The good news is that the Obama administration, which has seemed hostile to religious freedoms in the way it has tried to force contraceptive coverage as part of the Affordable Care Act, has decided to weigh in on the side of religion. So have 23 states, numerous counties and several religious groups.
This case gives the court an opportunity to resoundingly reaffirm religion's place in the public square, something sorely needed.
The case concerns prayers offered before the start of town council meetings in Greece, N.Y., a community of just less than 100,000 people near Rochester. This is a common practice in towns and cities nationwide. Two residents of Greece sued, alleging the practice amounted to the establishment of a religion because from 1999 to June 2010, all but four of these prayers were offered by Christians.
The case is significant because the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the two residents, ruling the city's decision to choose people to pray only from within the religious community in Greece, which is primarily a Christian town, "virtually ensure a Christian viewpoint."
This runs afoul of rulings by other appeals courts upholding prayers in public meetings. One of the most recent of these concerned a case from Lakeland, Fla. The 11th Circuit rejected claims that such prayers advanced the Christian religion and that the money spent in organizing prayers at meetings — estimated at between $1,200 and $1,500 per year — violated a state constitutional prohibition against using public money to advance or aid a religion.
In the Greece case, the plaintiffs argue they had to betray their own consciences by participating in a public prayer.
We are heartened by the Obama's administration's arguments that the practice instead furthers a long-held tradition of prayers at the beginning of legislative gatherings in the United States. It is not insignificant that this includes prayers before the start of Congress as well as at the Supreme Court, itself.
It is difficult to understand how a prayer, the content of which is neither proscribed nor written by anyone associated with a public body, could be considered as establishing a religion. Certainly, governments ought to be inclusive enough to allow prayers from all faith traditions, but there is every indication Greece has tried to represent its community in that regard. The town's policy allows anyone who asks to give a prayer to be accommodated.
It's also difficult to understand how a time-honored tolerance of religious freedom, which reaffirms the constitutionally honored role of religion in American life, can be twisted into an argument that the person offering the prayer represents, by inference, each resident's personal way of approaching deity. Respectfully listening to a prayer offered by someone of a different faith or belief system is neither offensive nor coercive — just as listening to a council member for whom you did not vote should not violate a sense of political tolerance.
To a great many Americans, it is entirely appropriate to invoke the blessings of God upon those the public has entrusted. This is a great opportunity for the Supreme Court to reaffirm that time-honored practice.