Today, in a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of a town board in upstate New York, and by extension, governmental bodies everywhere, to begin official meetings with a Christian prayer.
"Ceremonial prayer," the court said, is not unconstitutional. It is merely the continuation of a long American tradition, practiced by Congress and dozens of state legislatures, and is intended to "invoke divine guidance" and place governmental institutions in a "solemn and deliberative frame of mind."
How did the case come about? In 1999, Greece, N.Y., which is near Rochester, replaced its "moment of silence" at the beginning of town board meetings with prayer. The board would invite a "chaplain of the month" to deliver a benediction, usually pretty heavy on Jesus Christ, as most houses of worship within the town borders are Christian. The town has a Baha'i temple, but the Jewish synagogues that serve Greece's Jewish citizens are outside the city borders.
So, what do you know? At more than 120 monthly meetings during the period from 1999 to 2010, only four prayers were delivered by non-Christians, who were allowed to offer prayers only after two local women complained.
The two women, Linda Stephens, an atheist, and Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, became the plaintiffs in the case. They said they felt that because Christian themes pervaded the prayers, citizens who did not share those beliefs felt excluded. They did not ask that prayers be eliminated, only that the prayers be "ecumenical."
Here, according to the Supreme Court, is an example of what the women found objectionable:
Lord, God of all creation, we give you thanks and praise for your presence and action in the world. We look with anticipation to the celebration of Holy Week and Easter. It is in the solemn events of next week that we find the very heart and center of our Christian faith. We acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We draw strength, vitality, and confidence from his resurrection at Easter.... We pray for peace in the world, an end to terrorism, violence, conflict, and war. We pray for stability, democracy, and good government in those countries in which our armed forces are now serving, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan .... Praise and glory be yours, O Lord, now and forever more. Amen."
The four non-Christian invocations were delivered in 2008, when town board meetings were preceded by prayers from the chairman of the local Baha'i temple, as well as two Jewish laymen and a Wiccan priestess.
(The court contradicts itself on how these invitations came about. Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion says the Baha'i representative and the two Jewish laymen were invited by the town, while the Wiccan priestess contacted the town board. Justice Stephen Breyer, in his dissent, however, says the town invited only the Baha'i representative; the Jews and the Wiccan, he wrote, invited themselves.)
Still, said the court, the town made a "reasonable effort" to identify all its local religious congregations, and welcomed all comers to offer pre-meeting prayers. The town showed no indication of pro-Christian bias, the court said. It's not the town board's fault that most of the town's congregations are Christian. "So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination, the Constitution does not require it to search beyond its borders for non-Christian prayer givers in an effort to achieve religious balancing," wrote Kennedy.
But, as Justice Elena Kagan pointed out in her dissent, what is to stop a court official from asking a minister to recite a Christian prayer before the start of a trial, or the presiding official at a naturalization ceremony to invite a pastor to do the same. What is to stop an elections official from asking a line of voters to bow their heads in prayer as he recites a Christian invocation before a polling place opens?
"I would hold that the government officials responsible for the above practices -- that is, for prayer repeatedly invoking a single religion's beliefs in these settings -- crossed a constitutional line," Kagan wrote. "I have every confidence the Court would agree."
So why, she asks, should a town meeting be treated any differently?
And what, she wonders, would happen if a predominantly Jewish community asked a rabbi to begin every gathering chanting from the Torah: "Hear O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One .... Bind [these words] as a sign upon your hand; let them be a symbol before your eyes; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house, and on your gates."
Or a Muslim community to begin with the Islamic call to prayer: "God is greatest, God is greatest. I bear witness that there is no deity but God. I bear witness that Muhammed is the Messenger of God."
Or, for heaven's sakes, Satanists.
After all, they, too, consider themselves a religion. And who is to say otherwise?
Satanic Temple spokesman Lucien Greaves was only too happy to compose a prayer.
I first spoke with Greaves in January, when the Satanic Temple proposed a horned, winged Baphomet statue for Oklahoma's state capitol.
The proposal was a response to the installation of a six-foot granite tablet inscribed with the 10 Commandments by Oklahoma legislators in 2012. (The ACLU has sued to have the 10 Commandments removed, arguing that the statue violates the 1st Amendment.)
Greaves was game. Here is what he sent:
"Let us stand now, unbowed and unfettered by arcane doctrines born of fearful minds in darkened times. Let us embrace the Luciferian impulse to eat of the Tree of Knowledge and dissipate our blissful and comforting delusions of old. Let us demand that individuals be judged for their concrete actions, not their fealty to arbitrary social norms and illusory categorizations. Let us reason our solutions with agnosticism in all things, holding fast only to that which is demonstrably true. Let us stand firm against any and all arbitrary authority that threatens the personal sovereignty of One or All. That which will not bend must break, and that which can be destroyed by truth should never be spared its demise. It is Done. Hail Satan."