Welcome to Faith & Reason – the question and conversation blog where your participation is critical.

This is just my second F&R post for Religion News Service, now that the blog and I have moved here from USA TODAY. The first post asked whether kid-centric efforts by churches or synagogues led to adult believers. Please keep right on commenting on that question or start in on my new Q., a touchy church-state issue:

Do you wish you were a Supreme Court justice who could on rule on whether prayers before government meetings are “kosher?”

Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court hear arguments on whether government-sanctioned prayer before public meetings is constitutional.

Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court hear arguments on whether government-sanctioned prayer before public meetings is constitutional. Photo via Wikipedia Commons


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Even if you have no desire to sit on the high court, you probably have a point of view on Greece v. Galloway, the case argued at SCOTUS today. To go by the transcript, even the justices were wary.

At the center of this case is the small New York town of Greece, which begins its meetings with prayers offered by clergy who are almost always, but not exclusively, Christian.

Lauren Markoe at RNS, looking at the briefs saw questions raised by the prayer-and-clergy picks. Is it proselytizing? Is it discriminating against those who belong to minority faiths or identify with no religion?

Does the idea that any government body decides which clergy, which prayers, are suitable – or censored -- worry you?

Your turn!

A quick reminder of how this works: I launch the discussion with an issue in the news that raises questions. (If you know me, you know I never have just one question. And I generally think there’s more than one answer worth consideration.) All views respectfully presented are welcome so bring your brains, your beliefs and your manners.

Your turn! Post early, post often and share F&R with your friends.

28 Comments

  1. I remain fiercely pro-First Amendment. Thus, I would go along with the Clinton-Gore White House era and say that equal access laws apply.

    So either everyone gets to pray according to their conscience or….

    NOBODY prays at all.

    The key: No government edited prayer, which would be the ultimate “entanglement” issue of all time.

  2. The prayers in the City of Greece case were insanely over the top prosleyzing endorsement of Christianity. There is no way to polish that turd. It gave the message to the townspeople that any other faiths are not welcomed or should be treated with respect by the government.

    Either be ecumenically inclusive as hell, as non-sectarian as possible, or forget the whole thing. Government is not a pulpit and faith doesn’t need tax dollars.

    • So are you endorsing government limits on public speech in that setting? Government rules on what is acceptable speech and what is not?

      Or are you saying that equal access principles should apply (a liberal church-state option), with the only option (from your point of view) being the banning of all spoken prayer in that context?

      Government control of the content of speech is not liberalism, nor is church-state separation in action.

      • Way to dishonestly rephrase the argument!

        Government officials, speaking on behalf of the government, representing them in public are not entitled to free speech in such settings. You are not speaking with your own voice but as the voice of the government in question. Government is perfectly allowed to control the content of speech of those representing it.

        Not equal access, that stinks of half-baked tokenism. I am saying ecumenialism, non-sectarianism. Embrace all religions or leave them out entirely. Show no favoritism or endorsement. My tax dollars are not needed for your affirmation of faith.

        When people use their position in government for blatant sectarian prayer or for prosletyzing they are breaking their oath of office, the law, and attacking notions constitutionally protected religious freedoms. It has no place whatsoever.

        Maybe you should have read further into the 1st Amendment. Preferably the Establishment Clause. Then maybe you would have had an honest, sane argument.

  3. The SCOTUS’ job is to rule on whether is Constitutional, so the first order of business should be to determine what the Constitution actual says in regard to religion:

    Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

    In effect, to me, that means two thing:

    1) The government cannot create an official state church/religion
    2) The government should not block people from exercising their faith freely

    So how does prayer before government meetings fit in? Let’s explore how it relates to each of those:

    1) State church/religion: I don’t see any evidence that they are trying to make a national or state church. The appearance may be that they are endorsing a particular faith. However, they did not exclusively use any one denomination. Likewise, I don’t see any evidence that the government attempted to control religion, nor that they advocated religious teachings be applied to their work exclusively.

    2) Free exercise: I don’t see any evidence that people were forced to participate. Maybe not participating would cost some political capital, but that is still a choice (lots of things cost political capital), so was anyone really prevented from freely exercising their own faith or lack thereof?

    So, if I were a justice I would say that the Town of Greece is within its rights to adopt a prayer, so long as it has been optional participation and so long as they did not base their legislation exclusively on religious dogma.

    • “I don’t see any evidence that they are trying to make a national or state church.”

      Your definition and assessment is far from accurate or honest.

      As usual of people who only pay lip service to religious freedoms, you denuded the Establishment Clause of its given interpretations to render it meaningless. You also deliberately and dishonestly confuse the difference between personal acts and those done on behalf of government.

      Establishment has been considered any kind of action which the government shows favoritism towards a given faith. Blatantly sectarian and prosletyzing prayers are a perfect example of that kind of favoritism. It tells people of differing faiths that they are unwelcomed by the government. Just because you can’t pin it down to a specific sect, doesn’t mean it isn’t sectarian. The prayers used specifically were Christian and specifically excluded all other faiths. It is endorsement and establishment in an obvious fashion.

      Free Exercise doesn’t apply to government officials acting on behalf of the government. A prayer said in a town meeting by a public official is not an expression of personal faith. It is a message that the speaker’s said faith has the power of government behind it.

      “so was anyone really prevented from freely exercising their own faith or lack thereof?”

      Yes, people of other faiths are being told specifically that they should expect no respect from the government. That their views will not matter.

      • Hello Larry,

        Thanks for your comments. I’d like to address a few of them:

        “As usual of people who only pay lip service to religious freedoms, you denuded the Establishment Clause of its given interpretations to render it meaningless. You also deliberately and dishonestly confuse the difference between personal acts and those done on behalf of government.”

        I don’t think there is anything “dishonest” about it, and I wish that more online discussions wouldn’t falter into such demeaning tones. Nonetheless, a vast array of legal precedent supports the idea that the establishment clause does, indeed, pertain (in part) to the creation of a state religion or an official endorsement of a given religion. Judging by your comments, you are referring to the latter component of that, which I can appreciate. It is certainly an overt action which is probably a bit unnecessary. But the question for me, in this instance, is does it rise to the level of being unconstitutional? I’m not one to favor the idea that the US Constitution places an iron wall between church and state, that the two can’t overlap in some minor ways. While that may not be helpful, I don’t see it as unconstitutional.

        “The prayers used specifically were Christian and specifically excluded all other faiths. It is endorsement and establishment in an obvious fashion”

        I’m not sure it’s as obvious as it might appear if you actually read the case brief. The town offered prayers by Christian, Jewish, Baha’i, and and even Wiccan clergy. So I don’t think the claim can be made that they were “specifically” Christan and “excluded all of other faiths”.

        “Free Exercise doesn’t apply to government officials acting on behalf of the government”

        I didn’t say it did. I said that the government didn’t have the right to force people – elected officials or otherwise – to participate in prayers. Unless I have missed something, I can’t see any evidence that the Town of Greece forced anyone to participate.

        “Yes, people of other faiths are being told specifically that they should expect no respect from the government. That their views will not matter.”

        I think that this is a drastic conclusion to draw. For one, as I’ve mentioned, a host of religious leaders were involved. Secondly, I’m not sure any evidence exists that when proceedings actually began – when the representive democracy began rolling – that anything was done to oppress or otherwise restrict any religious organisations.

        • You are still being dishonest.

          The Establishment Clause has been interpreted for quite some time to be a lot more than “the creation of a state religion or an official endorsement of a given religion”

          You use weaselwords with “a given religion”. As if not endorsing a specific sect of Christianity means that government can endorse Christianity in general, as it did in City of Greece.

          “But the question for me, in this instance, is does it rise to the level of being unconstitutional?”

          When it is exclusionary. When it clearly embraces one faith in a blatantly sectarian fashion. When it is associated with prosletyzing. When it is clearly offensive to minority faiths within a community by omitting them.

          Ecumenialism is what keeps religious displays and language from becoming unconstitutional. It either embraces all beliefs generally or it has no business in government.

          The town used predominately Christian prayers and only paid lip service to paying attention to other religions. Rather than tokenism, removing all sectarian trappings would have been more appropriate. You should have seen the videos submitted as evidence for the prosecution. It was pretty clear.

          Your free speech argument is completely phony. The government does not have to force people into prayers for it to be unconstitutional. You are trying to shift goalposts and cough up your own definitions where reality is too inconvenient. The act of a government officials engaging in sectarian prayer is endorsement. A government official does not get the benefit of free speech or free exercise when representing their position to the public.

          The basic interpretation by the courts of when government engages in sectarian prayer is that it gives the impression of exclusion. My conclusion is exactly how they considered it in the past. Whether you agree with it or not is immaterial. Its inherent in the act itself. All one has to do is prove it was sectarian. The burden is on the government to justify its actions, why it was done in such a fashion, not on people to prove it was improper.

      • Larry, you are just acting like a troll now with your insults of dishonesty and refusal to consider that you don’t control how your precious “tax dollars” are used on a daily basis. Your reading of the establishment clause has no bearing. Are you going to go after every God damn that’s spoken on government property? Tell the military that their “religious speech” is not allowed by your tax dollars? Ridiculous discrimination.

        • The only trollish response is your own.

          When people spend our tax dollars on their religion and engage actions which are guaranteed to bring lawsuits, I have every right to complain about it. Especially when it violates Constitutional principles. Politicians who do such things deserve to be booted out of office.

          Since when is “God Damn” a prayer?

          As for the military, it has already become a battleground for religious rights. Thanks by and large to Evangelicals trying to undermine religious liberties and traditions of non-sectarian behavior within it. There have been numerous incidents where officers have abused their rank and power to engage in prosletyzing. There is a big struggle to include Humanist and Pagan chaplains being opposed by Christian Fundamentalists. So even free exercise of religion is being attacked by those seeking to impose Christian privilege on our government.

          The people who extol the kind of public prayers involved here have zero respect for any faith but their own. They want a government for Christians only to the exclusion of all others.

    • AZatheist:

      Yes, but you are also neglecting the fact that Jesus also prayed and gave thanks in public (see John 6:11, 11:41-42 as just a few examples). Christ was not saying public prayer is wrong – he was advocating that praying publically simply to demonstrate something about yourself publically is hypocritical. Prayer is an act of surrender to God, not a display of the ego. So Jesus was not rejecting public prayer – he was rejecting selfish prayer which is, he is right, a hypocritical act.

      I think many in government, and elsewhere, are certainly guilty of this: they “pray” to show that they are Christian and score some political points rather than truly reflect and offer thanks and ask forgiveness for sin. However, this is not to say that a collective of faithful people can’t gather in prayer as they see fit, regardless of their job.

      Likewise, the teachings of Christ are clarified throughout Biblical commentary: there is little to no evidence of an outright rejection of public prayer.

  4. LARRY:

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    Uh, and then you say….

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    Which is the essence of the Clinton-Gore era approach to equal access in government-linked environments, which I endorsed.

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    So equal access except for people whose doctrine offends you.

    Check. How illiberal.

    At which point the government has to decide which prayers are acceptable and which are not. That is the essence of the establishment of a government approved approach to religious doctrines.

    Once again: Freedom of speech for all, or the government would have to ban all. That’s the equal access approach. That’s a realistic liberal approach.

    – See more at: http://cathylynngrossman.religionnews.com/2013/11/06/pray-tell-rule-prayer-public-meetings-2/#comments

    • “So equal access except for people whose doctrine offends you.”

      You are a dishonest piece of trash.

      Government officials do not have free speech and free exercise rights WHEN THEY ARE REPRESENTING THEIR POSITION TO THE PUBLIC. They are speaking on behalf of the government, not themselves. They have to hold themselves out as representing the community in its entirety.

      “At which point the government has to decide which prayers are acceptable and which are not.”

      When it is done by a private citizen on their own accord it is OK. When done by someone representing the government it isn’t.

      You are making a phony ignorant argument.

  5. LARRY:

    Let’s try that again. The computer program for these comments edited out the quotes from your comment.

    “Not equal access, that stinks of half-baked tokenism.”

    — UH…. And then you say.

    “Embrace all religions or leave them out entirely. Show no favoritism or endorsement.”

    — Which is the essence of the Clinton-Gore era approach to equal access in government-linked environments, which I endorsed.

    “When people use their position in government for blatant sectarian prayer or for prosletyzing they are breaking their oath of office, the law, and attacking notions constitutionally protected religious freedoms. It has no place whatsoever.”

    — So equal access except for people whose doctrine offends you.

    Check. How illiberal.

    At which point the government has to decide which prayers are acceptable and which are not. That is the essence of the establishment of a government approved approach to religious doctrine.

    Once again: Freedom of speech for all, or the government would have to ban all. That’s the equal access approach. That’s a realistic liberal approach.

  6. Chief Justice Berger said it best in the Marsh decision:

    “The use of prayer is embedded in the nation’s history and tradition. That the practice of the Nebraska legislature is consistent with the framers’ intent is proven by their use of chaplains. Additionally, the Supreme Court and Congress have traditionally begun their sessions with prayers. Individual states do not have to abide by more stringent First Amendment limits than the federal government. …Because of the principles upon which the nation has developed, religion has become part of the fabric of society.”

    Today’s Supreme Court has already failed America, gravely failed our nation, with its decisions on gay marriage. Berger is at least a starting point. Let’s hope the Supremes come up with a reasonable decision.

    • Berger’s decision was a dodge. Tax money going to Chaplains based on “tradition” and “no harm, no foul”. The court dodged actually applying Establishment Clause tests to it as the dissent pointed out:

      “The Court makes no pretense of subjecting Nebraska’s practice of legislative prayer to any of the formal “tests” that have traditionally structured our inquiry under the Establishment Clause. That it fails to do so is, in a sense, a good thing, for it simply confirms that the Court IS CARVING OUT AN EXCEPTION TO THE Establishment Clause, rather than reshaping Establishment Clause doctrine to accommodate legislative prayer.”

      The decision itself is limited to the subject of chaplains and only that.

      Engel v. Vitale (1962) is much more on point

      “state officials may not compose an official state prayer and require that it be recited …– even if the prayer is denominationally neutral and [those] who wish to do so may remain silent or be excused from the room while the prayer is being recited.”

  7. “That the practice of the Nebraska legislature is consistent with the framers’ intent ”

    So was: counting Black people as 3/5 a person and the disenfranchisement of women, American Indians, and non-land holders. They were wrong about a lot of things. This included If you must pray. do it in your closet as Jesus commanded and don’t do it in public as the hypocrites do.
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    • Irrelevant red herring. No connection. The strength of the constitution is that it allows for free speech not just freedom of religion without government establishment. This is more about free speech and the need to reflect pluralism and diversity.

      • Not at all, AZAtheist was just pointing out the intellectual dishonesty behind invoking “framer intent” when discussing interpretation of the law. It is an argument used to pretend more than a century of given legal interpretation never existed. In a common-law system such as our own, writer intent is irrelevant when compared to judicial interpretation. Framer intent would only be a valid argument in Continental Europe or former colonies thereof.

        There is no freedom of speech issue here. That is an irrelevant red herring. A government official speaking on behalf of the government is not exercising free speech. Its acting in service of their position.

        When a government official turns sectarian prayers into a regular practice in activities associated with the office, it is endorsement. It is the government saying the speaker’s religious beliefs are taken seriously to the exclusion of others.

        Of course there are many who have no problem with endorsement because it is usually their religion being endorsed. It sets a bad example and easily backfires.

  8. How about this crazy idea, if you have any influence on the public, meaning you were either elected, appointed, hired, in any capacity that allows decision asking that affects the policy and actions of any public (ie government) office, department, etc, that you don’t get to bring any of your personal fairy beliefs into the equation in any way. That includes talking about it, praying about it, speaking to god about it, being divinely inspired about it, etc. Just do your job that you are supposed to be doing. It reduces my confidence in any regulating body that needs to hear before they begin their business that they “pray for wisdom and blessing” from their magic sky man. If they didn’t have the wisdom to make decisions, or act according to their charge then exactly why are they there in the first place? Any charlatan can “pray for guidance ” and then institute anything, and say it was because they were following the wisdom granted to them by god. I can’t wait for the day when having belief in nonsense PRECLUDES anyone from holding such positions in the first place because clearly their judgment is suspect. If I said I believed in Zeus and did what he told me to do, despite any other overwhelming qualifications, do you think I would be elected into any office? No, because everyone would always wonder am I being influenced by the crazy. Well, that is precisely what any sane person would think about anyone who would say the same about god/jesus/allah/yawey/(add you deluded idea of a deity here). Keep you religion out of my life, and yes, that also means to keep it out of ANY government position and/or proceeding as they, by definition affect my life.

  9. The Greece city council did not include prayers of non-Christians until the latter stages of the issue and, then, only nominally. Prior to that, over years, all prayers were Christian. It is obvious from those bringing the suit that Greece is not exclusively Christian.

    In the early days of European immigration to this continent, although many of the immigrants were fleeing persecution in their home countries, when they got here they established colonies with “state” religions. Almost all the colonies did this. If you weren’t the “right” religion, you couldn’t live in the colony. Or, if you tried to, you could be persecuted, run out or killed. Roger Williams had to leave such a colony to establish a separate colony to have freedom of religion.

  10. I’m not sure why Christians, in particular, are so militant about making sure they lead everyone … Christian or not … in prayer before government meetings. After all, their own Jesus is reported to have forbidden the practice of praying in public:

    “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” (Mt 6:5-6)

    I’m not sure how much clearer it could be: Christians cannot engage in public piety. Jesus forbid it in his followers. What part of “go into your inner room” do these people not comprehend?

  11. Some years ago I wrote an article — largely for chaplain training — on the issue of public prayer in non-religious settings. Although it does not answer the direct question in this blog, which is whether prayers should ever be allowed in public settings (because it takes as a given that prayers in the military were taking place), it is an effort on my part to discuss some possible ways clergy of different faiths — at least those clergy represented in the chaplaincy — can struggle with the issue of “inclusiveness.” I am posting a link here to the article just in case it any of the commentators in this blog might find it to be of interest: www.resnicoff.net/prayer

  12. If there is a God who can read our hearts, it does not seem necessary to petition it in prayer. I there is a God who hears and responds to prayer, it does not seem necessary for more than one person to pray for the same thing. So there is no point in praying at public meetings or anywhere else.

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