The Spectacle Blog

Public Prayer In A Small Town

By on 11.9.13 | 12:52PM

It has come to the point where any mention of Jesus Christ in a public place, whether in Congress or in small-town New York, is potentially a “coercive” violation of the rights of atheists and non-Christians. 

The Supreme Court is currently hearing oral arguments over whether it is constitutional for the Greece, N.Y. town board to pray before every public session. The plaintiffs, residents Susan Galloway (Jewish) and Linda Stephens (atheist), claim that because the prayers are performed mostly by Christian clergy, the town is violating the Establishment Clause. 

Douglas Laycock, the residents’ attorney, argued that “the prayers were sectarian and that Greece residents who show up at board meetings because they have business with the town officials are in effect ‘coerced’ into acquiescing with prayers, whatever their personal religious inclinations.” 

Associate Justice Sam Alito reasonably asked the attorney to “recite a prayer that was nonsectarian.” Justice Antonin Scalia also argued that to use “Creator” or “the Almighty” is to offend atheists and devil worshippers. 

Why is the Supreme Court even hearing this case? Greece is a town of just over 96,000 residents. Galloway and Stephens apparently feel so “oppressed” that they want the highest court in the land to dictate the decisions of a municipal board. 

While federal consolidation is an issue, it is secondary to the main problem of the decline of tradition. The town’s attorney, Thomas Hungar, relied on the primary argument of historical legacy:

“The town of Greece has a legislative prayer practice that is consistent with the traditions of this country from its very founding,” Mr. Hungar told reporters after the arguments. “Congress, from the very beginning of our history, has had a legislative prayer practice that is comparable to what the town of Greece has been doing.”

Justice Kennedy didn’t accept this argument as wholly sufficient grounds for upholding the prayers. Much as I dislike doing so, I partially sympathize with the libertarian Kennedy. 

For centuries, the majority of Americans realized the importance of a “Creator” and the recognition of such in the political arena; President Thomas Jefferson himself proposed at his first Inaugural that the country “pursue our own federal and republican principles…acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter…”

Now, however, if a municipal government dares to mention the transcendental, atheists demand relief from “coercion.” The word, as defined by the Oxford English dictionary, means “to persuade somebody to do something by using force or threats.”

First, neither of these women have been persuaded, judging by their outrage. Second, they are not forced to do anything except hear the words of a Christian tradition in a nation borne out of Western Judeo-Christian values. While Ms. Galloway and Ms. Stephens may critique the Christian nature of prayer, is it reasonable to bring their case to court? 

Or could they have simply met with the appropriate municipal office to request the presence of a rabbi? Why make a federal case out of a basic plea for supernatural guidance? 

That this case has gone so far exposes a division in our country: that of the traditionally faithful versus the individually resentful. Atheists and the non-religious resent any mention of a God because of their own moral outrage against a world that is meaningless and brutal. Thus, they seek to eliminate any form of “sectarian prayer” from the public sphere. 

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