The U.S. Supreme Court

The U.S. Supreme Court placed a small town in upstate New York on the right side of the law on Monday, defending the town’s practice of opening public meetings with a group Christian prayer, as long as officials make efforts at inclusion. We’ll discuss the ruling and the place of prayer in public spaces.

Dave Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association and author of "Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans"
Anthony Caso, associate professor at Chapman University School of Law and co-author of an amicus brief in support of the petitioner in Greece v. Gallower
Kimberly Winston, writer for Religion News Service

  • Guest

    If they really want to make an effort at inclusion, I’m sure they’ll welcome my slaughtering of a goat before each town meeting as a sacrifice to Odin, who is the one and only true god, excepting of course Thor, Loki and Freya. The idea that the Cult of the Jesus-demigod is able to hijack public meetings is offensive to everyone who is not a follower of the Jesus-demigod. In fact, such public prayers are heresies against Odin the all-father, and probably also a heresy against Jesus, considering that the kind of loopy fundamentalist American Christians who push for public prayers typically have very little in common with Jesus to begin with, and resemble more closely those who nailed Jesus to a cross.

    • thucy

      “The idea that the Cult of the Jesus-demigod is able to hijack public meetings is offensive to everyone who is not a follower of the Jesus-demigod. ”

      Actually, I know plenty of Christians who desire the separation of Church and State just as deeply as you do (I and most of my family among them.) Lots of things go well together, from peanut butter and chocolate, to blinis and caviar. Church and State, however, are always best served separately.

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    Back in the 90’s when we lived in Tracy CA I didnt like that only a select few Christian pastors were invited to open the city council meetings and even felt that the practice should be discontinued. Thankfully the council chose to welcome anyone of any belief to come and say a pray, poem of some other ‘blessing’ before the council opened for business. They also did the Pledge of Allegiance.

    Now I do know that it was May 1 1789 that the first Chaplain for Congress was elected/appointed so there is a rich historical aspect to opening government business with a prayer. House and Senate have a Chaplain who does this daily.

    And as Justice Kennedy noted as long as all beliefs are welcomed and NO proselytizing or NO demeaning of other religions occurs it’s permitted.

    • Guest

      I call upon the residents of such towns therefore to filibuster prayer-afflicted meetings with yet more endless “prayers” to various gods. Odin, Vishnu, Jupiter, Xenu are all fair game, as well as philosophical harangues.

  • Brian

    I noticed the City of Santa Clara begins every public meeting with a prayer which always seems awkward and inappropriate. It is heavily Christian based with reference to a “Heavenly Father”. I was stunned the first time I observed this thinking there was supposed to be separation of church and state. Something about the prayer feels divisive and intimidating. If you are an atheist or belong to other non-Christian religions the prayer seems to say “you do not belong here”. Even if this might be a long standing tradition it seems very “backwater” and is not what I would expect in a Silicon Valley community. I think the prayers get the meetings started on a bad footing and they should be done away with.

    • Guest

      People who are believers want to identify themselves as such. The problem is, religion is inherently divisive. When one’s beliefs are essentially made-up interpretations of bogus texts and questionable traditions, there is no rational argument to fall back on to justify them, so intolerance is inevitable, and hate is probable.

      • thucy

        Religion may well be inherently divisive. But Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were essentially free of any religious doctrine. And they proved more than capable of delivering genocide on a massive scale.
        Thus it may be more accurate to describe humans as possessing an inherent tendency toward violent, divisive behavior.

        • Guest

          Actually, Hitler was a Catholic as well as a grandson of a Rothschild, and said that the Aryans were divinely selected to rule humanity. Similarly Hitler’s friends in Japan thought they were divinely called upon to rule.

          • Another Mike

            Hitler was baptized, and confirmed at age 15. No evidence he was a practicing Catholic after that.

          • Guest

            Here is some rambling from Mein Kampf, written by Hitler:

            Because God’s will once gave men their form, their being, and their faculties. Who destroys His work thereby declares war on the creation of the Lord, the divine will.

  • thucy

    “If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.” -Max Von Sydow in “Hannah and Her Sisters”
    As an Orthodox Christian, I am deeply disappointed by this recent decision. Christ was, first and foremost, a dissenter, very much in the mold of Socrates. (And let’s face it, without Socrates’ execution occupying the Roman imagination, the J.C. “brand” would never have flourished as it did post-crucifixion.)
    Jesus would have abhorred this court and most of its decisions. Come to think of it, if he had come back and seen the Founding Fathers invoke his name – even as they bought and sold and forced themselves on enslaved Africans – he would have far harsher words for us than he ever had for Pontius Pilate.

    • Guest

      Jesus was essentially an activist working against a corrupt empire and culture.
      Whereas, the supreme court is a key instrument in bringing about the corruption of the American empire, insofar as it is pro-big-business.

  • Bob Fry

    Who cares? A meaningless prayer to an imaginary god is far better than Christian ayatollahs forcing their beliefs about contraception and a 6000 year old earth on the public.

    • Guest

      Every time I hear a public prayer it feels like a mild equivalent of a gang banger flashing a gang sign. Presenting a prayer excludes people who are equal citizens. If a town council were taken over by Scientologists, I am sure the Christians would complain about praise for Xenu being offered at the start of the meetings. What the Christian prayer really says is, “We took control”.

      • thucy

        You’re right. But add to that the fact that it’s godawfully tacky to have prayer in a secular venue. It’s just too Ayatollah.

  • karen_green

    At a city council meeting in Alameda when the issue of prayer was being discussed a minister speaking in favor of abolishing it at meetings said “we do not open our services with the pledge of allegiance, why begin meetings with a prayer.” City Council voted to stop all prayers at meetings.

    • halberst

      Speaking of Alameda, when I vote here I do so under a painting of Jesus (our polling place is at the St Barnabus School.) Not that I have a huge problem with that but I think religious people are alot less tolerant of my views.

  • Sarah

    Mr Niose commented that neutrality requires that we simply not have religious expression in public. But is that really “neutral?” It sounds like the assumption that any public religious expression is necessarily pernicious, and therefore cannot be permitted. That doesn’t sound neutral to me.

  • Debbie Neff McKee

    NYTimes article (A Liptak 5/5/14) cites how Scalia views free speech as ‘Speech I Agree With’…as do most Supreme Court Judges (according to the article which includes a graph chart of rulings)…as long as we have judges that base their decisions on Catholicism (the 5 majority are ALL Catholic), we wil have decisions that reflect their religious views….(Scalia’s wife is a member of Opus Dei!)

  • Ben Rawner

    Last time I checked the stats, over 90% of Americans see the themselves as spiritual and over 85% are religious. Not to mention the precedent that has been set since the first continental congress. The Supreme Court didn’t say we have to listen to a sermon. I have lived in two of the most diverse states in the union, CA and NY, and there has always been a space for all religious group. If you don’t believe in religion or a spirit, sit quietly and let the majority have their way. Would the atheist be happier if they could stand up and say “lies lies lies”.

    • halberst

      Why not just do that stuff at church? I see no need to drag the rest of us through this except to proselytize. It’s the civic equivalent of internet Spam.

    • Mrs. Eccentric

      “… let the majority have their way.” yeah! Because that’s what the constitution is all about, letting the majority have their way.

      (/snark: as i would hope is obvious, but which experience teaches me is necessary.)

    • thucy

      I lived in a very religious (very multi-religious) neighborhood in NY. I know no one in the Jewish community, the Orthodox Christian community, the Muslim community, or the Catholic community who would choose to push prayer in a town or borough meeting.
      It’s just rude.

    • But “let the majority have their way” is contrary to my faith in Jesus.

  • James Roberts

    Prayer takes up valuable time away from the business of governing. The facilities cost money to operate. Why should I have to pay for what I feel is a waste of time especially when there is supposedly a separation of church and state.

    • Don’t Mess With Muslims

      It is men who prayed that built the country that you now enjoy. What has atheism produced? Marxism. USRR. Pol Pot. Nazi Germany. Praying to a higher being who loves all people is not a waste of time. It reminds us and encourages us to do the same.

  • FlyingP4dre

    If the point of the prayer is to solemnitize the session, with no distinct religious cause, why is their prayer at all? If we’re (nearly) all Americans, isn’t that the common denominator? Can a session be solemnitized in some common American form without religion?

  • 1PeterDuMont2STARALLIANCE8

    The doctrine of separation of church and state, while discouraging discrimination, has had one unfortunate effect over the years: creating a dearth of good values education in public schools. The feeling was, all values education should be left to the home and church.

    Ironically, this has left a serious gap, with equally serious results. If nothing else, this decision should embolden school districts to make teaching civic values for a peaceful society an integral part of their curricula.

  • Joseph Max

    The Founders were NOT all in agreement about opening Legislative sessions with prayer or the Congress having chaplians. James Madison, one of the authors of the Constitution, in short, was against it. He wrote:

    “Is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom? In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the U. S. forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion. The law appointing

    Chaplains establishes a religious worship for the national representatives, to be performed by Ministers of religion, elected by a majority of them; and these are to be paid out of the national taxes. Does not this involve the principle of a national establishment, applicable to a provision for a religious worship for the Constituent as well as of the representative Body, approved by the majority, and conducted by Ministers of religion paid by the entire nation?”

    – The Founders’ Constitution, Volume 5, Amendment I (Religion), Document 64

  • InabaML

    I am a Buddhist and have not heard this perspective represented. The assumption that prayer or invocation to a deity or Higher Power is of value to a civic body is questionable. I believe that it would be of more value to spend the time allotted for prayer to thinking about how are actions are likely to affect others, especially those who are in need of our protection or care. Reminding a body to be compassionate in its decisions and to acknowledge our interconnectedness would be palatable to all. Have a moment of silent meditation would be a better use of time. If individuals want to use this time or any other time to pray they would be able to do that.

    • SJ

      Good point!

  • Gregory Ashley

    It is all about proselytizing your religion. People look for the opportunity where ever they can. It is not fair nor right to anyone not interested in being converted and government is not the place for exploiting the opportunity.

    • Another Mike

      I doubt this, because Jews, for example, make conversion extremely difficult. Any Jewish invocation would thus not be intended to proselytize.

  • SJ

    I am an agnostic, but I don’t think there is any religion that preaches intolerance of other religions. If you are a true follower of a religion and understand it well, it shouldn’t matter whether you pray in the name of “Jesus” or any other religious icon.
    Nothing stops the people of minority faith from saying a prayer silently while others are saying their own prayer.

  • Dr Sook

    One of the unintended consequences of the fight for Marriage Equality (vs universal civil unions) is this Supreme Court decision– a perverse gesture to pacify the fundamentalists.
    All those interested in equality should hold close the Constitution. Separation of church & state – a stricter Constitutional principle – would have protected us from this travesty.
    That some callers want to insist on their ‘freedom’ to be Christian- the answer is that freedom is importantly protected by separation & privacy…not be intruding on the public square.

  • Another Mike

    “Nondenominational” prayer might have made sense back when Americans adhered only to Abrahamic religions, but not when so many Americans belong to god-free religions like Confucianism, or many-god religions, like Hinduism. The task of encompassing every religion on Earth is impossible.

  • Rachel Mandelberg

    I have frequently heard the “Why should you care if I pray? To you it’s all fiction anyway,” argument. It is difficult to describe the feeling of exclusion that accompanies those moments for me. When you face constant discrimination, that moment of being an other is profound. I have been told that people cannot understand how I can be moral without god. I have had *friends* cry at the thought that I won’t get into heaven with them. Being surrounded by these attitudes is a low grade constant of my life. And prayer in public just heightens my otherness.

  • Selostaja

    If I declared myself as my own deity, how can I get my own invocations into the beginning of public hearings?

  • halberst

    Maybe what we who don’t want religion mixed into our politics is to just come up with something religious people would find offensive enough so they’ll stop trying to drag us through it. Something like the Festivus pole but a very long “prayer”. Or we could just get the Muslim call to prayer over loudspeakers which seems to really scare the majority Christians.

    • thucy

      Brilliant. But maybe let’s acknowledge that, despite five Catholic SC judges, the push for prayer in public meetings has come from Protestants, and specifically evangelicals.

      • halberst

        Are they not offended by that stuff? Frankly I they’re mostly the same to me, they’re all Christians right?

  • Another Mike

    The point of the decision seems to be that the Framers who drew up the First Amendment had religious invocations. They were in the best position to know what they meant by establishment of religion, and religious invocations at government meetings open to the public did not constitute one.

  • I’m committed to the Way of Jesus and sharing it with any who are open. I don’t ascribe to the common American idea that faith is a personal, private matter. …With that introduction, let me say I find the Supreme Court decision bizarre. There is nothing barring me from praying at any and all times, or even meeting with fellow disciples to pray before any important non-religious meeting.

  • Selostaja

    As an agnostic, I do not believe I am all knowing so I don’t know if there is a bearded man running everything. BUT I am often expressing my sense of gratitude to the general universe for my ‘blessings’.

  • tm17

    David Silverman from American Atheists is giving talk today at Stanford University at 6pm this evening. The topic is “normalizing atheism”. I’m sure this SCOTUS decision will be brought up as a terrible decision.

  • Jenny W.

    Roe v. Wade didn’t “hit the right-wing in the gut” as one panelist said. It hardly got any press. But as a recent NPR story pointed out, right-wing leadership at the time realized that abortion could be a way to bolster the right by appealing to a new, non-Protestant group: Catholics. So they started promoting anti-abortionism. Similar cynical calculations from right-wing leadership on the prayer issue. Religious faith has nothing to do with it.

    • thucy

      “by appealing to a new, non-Protestant group: Catholics.”

      Wow, Catholics are “new” relative to Protestants? Martin Luther might be very surprised to hear this….
      FYI: Catholicism preceded Protestantism.

      • Jenny W.

        Thanks for enlightening someone with a BA and Master’s in European history… I meant that Catholics were new to the right-wing as a group to ally with. My right-wing Protestant mother was very prejudiced against Catholics, as were many white Prots in the mid-20th century, in case you didn’t know.

        • thucy

          Too bad they didn’t teach you sentence construction in that Master’s program, Jenny! 😉
          And yes, my family is well acquainted with the racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination in these United States – on both a historical and experiential basis.
          As a non-Catholic, I will point out that the majority of U.S. Catholics are far less dogmatic in their practice than either the powers that be at the Vatican, or the majority of evangelical (Protestant) U.S. Christians.
          But U.S. Catholics have traditionally been more ethnically diverse than Protestants; they are also still somewhat concentrated in urban areas. I believe this, as well as many other factors, explains why the right hasn’t been entirely successful in retaining this group.
          As for evangelical fervor and discrimination, the severe proselytizing at West Point comes to mind. Ugly stuff, that.

  • EricWelch

    As a confirmed atheist, I’m rather encouraged by the Greece decision. These public prayers are so generic and silly, they can only serve to show people how nonsensical religion is. I mean, what do they pray for? Nice weather, hard working legislators (that’s a joke and proves prayer doesn;t work), or help for whatever cause of the moment (more evidence prayer is meaningless.) Prayers are basically just wishes, anyway. If there were a God, it’d be laughing itself silly.

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