On November 6, the US Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Town of Greece, NY v. Galloway, a case that is centered around prayer at government meetings. Two of the town’s residents, one atheist and one Jewish, initiated the case, citing that Greece town meetings have been opened with a prayer, overwhelmingly biased toward Christianity. After the practice was declared unconstitutional by the Second U.S. Circuit Court, the town residents and the Alliance Defending Freedom, a Religious Right advocacy group, petitioned SCOTUS to hear the case, and the Court agreed.
This case is of particular interest to me, not only because it involves church-state separation issues, but because I once resided in the Town of Greece and still live just 15 miles away. Unfortunately, the issue at the center of this case was poorly chosen. The lower court ruled it’s fine to begin meetings with a prayer or invocation, but the history of this particular town’s opening plea was that of endorsing Christianity rather than representing the religious diversity of its residents. It was the fact that the vast majority of prayers were Christian that was the problem, and not the existence of prayer itself at a government meeting.
While the Supreme Court may choose to refocus the issue at hand to the larger question of all prayer at government meetings, it’s likely to take the less controversial path to hearing arguments of the facts of this specific case, and rule that prayer at government functions must be representative of the population or nondenominational. Big deal. It appears that although church-state watchdogs Americans United have agreed to represent Galloway in the case, they will likely focus their argument on equal representation in prayer, rather than for the elimination of it altogether. Although AU would like to see prayer removed, it would be a much tougher concept to sell to a Supreme Court full of theists.
The bottom line is that religion does not belong in government, and vice versa. They need to be separate in order to coexist without infringing on the rights of the people. I would love to see a challenge to all government sponsored prayer succeed, where any invocation at government meetings is replaced by a moment of silence. In that scenario, prayer is not removed; it’s simply made more personal, as it should be. During a moment of silence, a Christian or Muslim may pray to his god, a Jew or Hindu to hers, and atheists can think about errands they need to run on the way home from the meeting. There are no winners and losers. But for some reason, the religious don’t like that route. Do they need the public reassurance that others share their faith? Or do they feel they need to win the right to publicly invoke their god in order to please it? Whatever the reason, it’s a selfish and exclusive one. If public officials were concerned with serving the people rather than making sure the opening prayer at their meetings matches their own belief system, this would not be an issue wasting the time of the United States Supreme Court. Government meetings should be for government business, not for the promotion of any religion. Church services don’t begin with an appeal to government officials, so why is it ok the other way around?