The United States Supreme Court ruled 5-4 last week that it is legal for governmental bodies at all levels to open their meetings with sectarian prayers. It would be nice to think that this narrowly decided ruling will settle the issue for all time, but those on the losing side can always find a way to attack from a different angle. If Godzilla can come back to life again this year anything is possible.
Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, largely got things right. These are ceremonial prayers and were already fairly innocuous even when they were not prayed in Jesus’ name. These prayers, along with the pledge of allegiance to the flag, announce to citizens that the meeting is convened and call those present to something larger than self: patriotism and religion. They have been prayed ever since the first colonists landed on our shores.
The case before the Supreme Court, Town of Greece, NY v Galloway, was brought by an atheist and a Jew who protested that way too many of the town meetings were opened by pastors specifically praying in the name of Jesus. They were upset by prayers of this nature, and maybe by public prayer, period. They claimed that citizens should not have to endure prayer in a public, governmental setting.
Justice Kennedy wrote, “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable. Legislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate.”
I do have some sympathy with the complaint about enduring arduous prayers. I’ve probably prayed more than my share of those prayers. But praying them is one thing: sitting through them is another. I’ve suffered through plenty of torturous, unorganized, rambling prayers peppered with religious jargon, mangled syntax and dubious theology during which I, too, entertained thoughts of a lawsuit.
But I digress. The long tradition of ceremonial prayer is now on legal solid ground, and that’s a good thing. At the very least these prayers are largely harmless; at the best they can perhaps change hearts and even public policy. Conservative Christians, especially, can take comfort in this bit of good news in a country where they see so many other signs of decadence and moral decay.
The New York Times report (May 5, 2014 by Adam Liptak) on the Greece v Galloway decision did raise an eyebrow for me when Liptak wrote, “Justice Kennedy did suggest that some prayers may be unacceptable if offered consistently, including ones that ‘denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion.’”
There is no place for denigrating other faiths in prayer. Kennedy has this right. But his other two categories of exclusion – damnation and conversion - are more problematic. There are surely times – even in a governmental assembly – when the hint of God’s judgment might be a good thing for government officials to hear. Same with conversion. Justice Kennedy didn’t mention repentance, but a healthy dose of it could be a bracing way for our civic meetings to begin.
Creede Hinshaw is a retired Methodist minister in Macon.