In the court’s decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, “The Court is not persuaded that the town of Greece, through the act of offering a brief, solemn, and respectful prayer to open its monthly meetings, compelled its citizens to engage in a religious observance.”
Secularists, represented by Americans United For the Separation of Church and State, claimed that public prayer violated the Establishment Clause and offended the sensibilities of non-believers.
The court responded, “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.”
The court continued, “It is presumed that the reasonable observer is acquainted with this tradition and understands that its purposes are to lend gravity to public proceedings and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens, not to afford government an opportunity to proselytize or force truant constituents into the pews. That many appreciate these acknowledgments of the divine in our public institutions does not suggest that those who disagree are compelled to join the expression or approve its content.”
The court concluded, “The principal audience for these invocations is not, indeed, the public but lawmakers themselves, who may find that a moment of prayer or quiet reflection sets the mind to a higher purpose and thereby eases the task of governing.”
Early in my career I had the privilege of working on legislation to reinstate prayer in public schools. Our argument was simple: Prayer, in any public setting, is an acknowledgement of a higher authority and this acknowledgement is essential to freedom. In fact, this acknowledgment has a very secular justification for public prayer.
Opponents of public prayer are concerned with any gesture that suggests a preference for one religion over another religion. Indeed, many opponents of public prayer, especially atheists, cringe at the idea of any acknowledgement that, to them, seems irrational. But, irrational or not, recognition of a higher authority in government has its virtue. It regularly reminds legislators – hopefully even humbles legislators – that the exercise of their political power has limits.
Opponents of public prayer also claim that such religious expressions are divisive. But any divisiveness exists from opponents only. They choose to be offended and freedom will not long endure if a choice to be offended is the governing doctrine in a free society.
The new progressive religion worships idealistic harmony and seeks to enforce its sensitivities very insensitively upon anyone who disagrees with them. Conservatives believe in “live and let live.” The new progressive religion does not. The court is right to defend a rational basis in public prayer.
For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.
This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.
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