Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Prayer, the Supreme Court, and Separation

Over the years, I have been and continue to become involved in advocacy for the separation of church and state. Reform Jews are particularly strong in their advocacy in that direction and many have expressed concerns about the recent US Supreme Court decision regarding prayers offered at city council meetings in Greece, New York. Such prayers have regularly involved the use of language specific to Christianity and often clearly appear to urge listeners to adhere to Christian beliefs. In fact, one would have to go out of his or her way to deny that Christianity is in fact the established religion of Greece, New York because all such prayers are given by Christians.

As I understand it, a solution was proposed in which it was argued that prayers could be offered as long as they did not advocate for a specific religion or that clergy of other faiths could be brought into Greece from other locales in order to provide diversity. The city challenged this argument which had been upheld by a lower court as a means to counter the de facto establishment of religion and the case went to the Supreme Court which decided in favor of Greece, NY, sending shock waves through the Separation of Church and State advocacy community.

In recent years, the discussion of Separation of Church and State has primarily focused on removing religious influence on state based functions. Essentially, such efforts have promoted the concept of a secular government, a government devoid of religious based action and bias. "Freedom from Religion" has been at the basis of this movement which argues that the basis of the anti-Establishment clause of the US Constitution mandates that view.

It would make sense based on this understanding to ban all official prayers in the context of governmental activities such as city council meetings or proceedings of state or federal legislatures for example. One must question whether or not prayer can ever be devoid of advocacy for a particular kind of faith if not for a particular faith. To argue that generic theistic prayers are acceptable but prayers that are specifically Christian are not would certainly raise concern about the violation of the free exercise clause at a minimum and potentially also the right of Free Speech.

The First Amendment reads:
Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. 
Politically, Progressives tend to stress the importance of the anti-Establishment clause, whereas Conservatives tend to stress the importance of the Free Exercise clause. Our Supreme Court currently leans 5-4 Conservative and that almost by itself explains the decision handed down this week, though I will explain in more detail. There are many cases where the two clauses conflict and the case of Greece, New York is certainly one of them.

What happens in Greece, New York regularly appears to violate the establishment clause while not violating the free exercise clause, whereas the solution proposed by those opposing the City Council's practice would appear to adhere to the anti-establishment directive, but would violate the free exercise clause. In other words, in this specific case, which does not address whether or not such prayers should ever take place, the question, based on the proposed solution, seems to have been about how one may pray rather than being about whether or not one may pray in that context. The practice of offering a prayer at all was never questioned.

To put this argument into the context of Separation of Church and State specifically, two concerns arise:
  1. Should there be prayer at state functions? This action clearly violates "separation", but does not necessarily violate "anti-establishment," unless no diversity is present in which case it likely does.
  2. Should there be restrictions imposed on the religious content of prayers offered? Doing so would appear to violate the Free Exercise clause.
 Here's a direct quote from Justice Kennedy's opinion in the Greece, NY case:
To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and sensors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town's current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.
This is in accord with the Free Exercise clause, ie keeping state out of religion. Telling a minister that he cannot represent his tradition would in fact be state interference in religion and, I would add, which Kennedy does not, in the context of both mandating prayers and requiring basic God language, could functionally establish Deism as the state religion which would be a violation of the anti-Establishment clause as well.

As I see it, the question for advocates of Separation of Church and State is truly focused on whether or not such prayers should take place at all with the clear understanding that the context of such prayers being offered overwhelmingly or even exclusively by Christian clergy will promote the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the government.

The fact that it is not within the court's purview to require the council to bring residents of other cities to offer prayers so as to provide diversity and avoid de facto establishment of Christianity as the faith of the city and that the court rightly defends the free exercise of religion does not excuse the fact that without diversity the existence of prayers of similar nature from a single faith establishes that faith as the government's religion. In other words, the court cannot demand diversity or determine the content of prayers, but neither can it allow the establishment of a government backed religion which is the case in Greece, New York.

This case was about how prayers were offered. It was a free exercise case. The next one will argue that without accommodation for diversity, the allowance for prayer in this type of context is de facto establishment. In order to follow the US Constitution's directive, a city council will have to either provide diversity or not have such prayers as the latter without the former necessarily results in establishment.

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