Local governments should not invite members of the clergy to pray at public meetings. Why not? Because people of all religious beliefs — and people with no religious beliefs — come to such meetings to seek the aid of their elected representatives. Even the most ecumenical of prayers will make some listeners feel excluded. And prayers that invoke the doctrines of only one faith are especially offensive.
Yet on Monday, a narrow majority of the Supreme Court gave a constitutional green light to such practices.
Beginning in 1999, the town of Greece, N.Y., invited local clergy members to serve as "chaplain of the month" and offer "our prayer" at town meetings. Between 1999 and 2007, every person invited to offer a prayer was a Christian, and the prayers often mentioned Jesus. For example, one guest chaplain prayed: "We look with anticipation to the celebration of Holy Week and
Two residents, one Jewish and one an atheist, filed suit, demanding that prayers at the meetings refer only to a "generic God." The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals refused to go that far, but it concluded that, even though the town eventually allowed a few non-Christians to offer prayers, "an objective, reasonable person would believe that the town's prayer practice had the effect of affiliating the town with Christianity."
Given its precedents, it was unlikely that the Supreme Court was going to ban prayer at government meetings altogether. Next best would have been a ruling that only nonsectarian prayers could be offered. Or, at a minimum, the justices could have ruled that local officials must take steps to ensure that prayers — and the clergy who offered them — reflect a wide variety of religions.
Instead, by a 5-4 majority, the court gave local governments an excessively wide berth. Not only did it rule in favor of Greece; Justice
In a 1983 ruling, the court allowed the
True, but this country is considerably more diverse religiously than it was in the 18th century. As Justice