A Further Perspective

Secularist Alarmism

The Left laments a Supreme Court ruling.

By 5.7.14

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The Supreme Court this week ruled in favor of permitting voluntary prayer at city council meetings—a matter so benign that Eric Holder’s Justice Department didn’t even bother to oppose it. America’s long history of prayers and official chaplains at legislative sessions, both at the federal and state level, made the ruling an unavoidable decision for the Court, though four liberal justices dutifully lined up against it, treating a handful of Christian prayers at a town hall meeting in New York as a form of potential oppression.

“Get ready for a lot more Jesus in your life,” warned Slate. The Left casts any government nod to America’s historic religious traditions, no matter how small, as a move toward Christian theocracy. Many Americans wouldn’t consider “more Jesus” in public life a horrifying prospect, but this modest Supreme Court ruling won’t generate that supposedly scary scenario. The Court’s decision merely ratifies its own precedent from a 1983 case that upheld legislative prayer. Had the court ignored that precedent, the secularist triumph over public life would be near complete.

Greece v. Galloway revolved around the claim that voluntary prayers at a town hall meeting in Greece, New York, a predominately Christian town, constituted a violation of the First Amendment. The prayers were mostly Christian, as naturally reflective of the community, but not exclusively so. A majority on the Court found the prayers consistent with ceremonial prayers permitted in public life throughout American history.

“As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable court’ at the opening of this court's sessions,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.

The dissenters tried to rewrite this history, arguing that only the most lowest-common-denominator prayers fall under the American tradition of the First Amendment. But that is not true. The framers did not insist on only rigorously non-sectarian prayers. “Not only is there no historical support for the proposition that only generic prayer is allowed,” Justice Sam Alito wrote, “but as our country has become more diverse, composing a prayer that is acceptable to all members of the community who hold religious beliefs has become harder and harder.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that to satisfy the dissenters’ condition of sufficiently inclusive prayer government officials would have to vet the prayers of chaplains and essentially write the prayers for them. Ministers have always been free to pray according to their own traditions without editing. “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,” wrote Kennedy.

Justice Elena Kagan agreed that council meetings need not be “religion-free” zones but still found reason to object on the aforementioned grounds, claiming that only prayers to a nondescript God are constitutional. This would have come as a surprise to the Constitution’s framers, who never saw public life as a Christianity-free zone or dictated to chaplains the precise theological character of their prayers.

The dissenters’ insistence on non-sectarian prayer appears opportunistic in any case, since what they truly favor—if their overriding objective is the protection of the non-religious—is no prayer at all. But to eliminate Christianity, they have had to fake up an interest in non-sectarian prayer—a prayer that under the editing of the Kagans would cease to be meaningfully religious and become just another tribute to secularism.

The Founding Fathers did not write the First Amendment so that the federal government would have a mandate to micromanage prayers at town hall meetings within the states. As Clarence Thomas pointed out, the First Amendment only applied to the federal government, not to local and state ones.

But the living Constitutionalists don’t care. They see the First Amendment as an instrument of nation-wide de-Christianization, which culminates in the tyranny of the non-religious minority, for whom no prayer can be acceptable and the sight of a nativity scene becomes an occasion for bleating about theocracy and oppression.

This ruling is a “defeat for religious neutrality,” harrumphed the New York Times. That is its euphemism for the atheistic public square. The Supreme Court’s decision to maintain the status quo is a victory, if only a minor and temporary one, against it.

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About the Author
George Neumayr, a contributing editor to The American Spectator, is co-author, with Phyllis Schlafly, of the new book, No Higher Power: Obama's War on Religious Freedom.