Six Takeaways from Yesterday’s Supreme Court Decision to Allow Sectarian Prayer at Government Meetings May 6, 2014

Six Takeaways from Yesterday’s Supreme Court Decision to Allow Sectarian Prayer at Government Meetings

After yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling in favor of government prayer, here are a few takeaways that might have been lost in the aftermath:

  1. Age was a factor in the decision.
  2. There was a strong focus on adults in the majority’s decision, leaving the door open for the question of whether sectarian prayers should be allowed in the presence of children, who may be more susceptible to coercion.

    Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and per­haps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.

    Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum, especially where, as here, any member of the public is welcome in turn to offer an invocation reflecting his or her own convictions.

    Should nonbelievers choose to exit the room during a prayer they find distasteful, their absence will not stand out as disrespectful or even noteworthy. And should they remain, their quiet acquiescence will not, in light of our traditions, be interpreted as an agreement with the words or ideas expressed. Neither choice represents an unconsti­tutional imposition as to mature adults, who “presumably are “not readily susceptible to religious indoctrination or peer pressure.”

  3. Non-theistic groups are reacting in very different ways.
  4. The American Humanist Association announced a new program that would help train people to deliver secular invocations. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, on the other hand, is offering a reward to the person who delivers the “best” non-religious invocation, urging them to fight fire with fire.

    As Walter Olson points out at Secular Right, “the AHA wants to show that unbelievers can fully join in and be an equal part of the civic ideals traditionally symbolized by invocations, while the FFRF is more intent on upsetting the applecart and creating enough discomfort with the whole idea of such a ceremony to cause its discontinuance.”

  5. There are still limits to what the sectarian prayers can include.
  6. Justice Anthony Kennedy made clear that he was not opening the door to all kinds of prayers. The prayers he believes are acceptable can include no jabs at non-theists, threats of damnation, or calls for conversion:

    If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbeliev­ers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.

  7. The bar has been raised for filing lawsuits over supposedly illegal prayers.
  8. Before the decision, religious invocations on their own could lead to lawsuits (as we saw with Greece). Now, according to Dahlia Lithwick, “sectarian prayer will be permissible until it isn’t.” It would basically take a town allowing fire-and-brimstone preaching before a court took up another government invocation case.

  9. The Satanic Temple already has a prayer ready to go for a future invocation
  10. “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.”

    I’ll throw in $10 to anyone who uses that.

  11. The namesake of the Supreme Court case that banned mandatory prayer from public school supported yesterday’s Court decision.
  12. Famed atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hare went to the Supreme Court in 1963 on behalf of her son in order to get mandatory Bible readings out of public school. Her son William Murray has since become a conservative Christian and he applauded yesterday’s ruling:

    [Murray] told WND in an interview Monday that the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway is “a victory for the right not to be offended.”

    “This case refutes a claim made by the political left today that a person has an inherent right in the Constitution of the United States that says nobody can say anything or write anything that offends me or my ideas,” he said.

    Okay, so he makes very little sense, but it’s still a fascinating 180 turn from his mother.



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