Supreme Court brings clarity to prayer issue

Interesting news from the Supreme Court Monday on the issue of prayer and government meetings.

Offering an opening prayer at City Council meetings here in Grand Junction had fairly recently been a quite controversial topic, which was portrayed as an unconstitutional attempt to impose a particular theological philosophy from a public rostrum.

The issue for opponents of the practice was that most of the prayers indicated a disposition toward Christianity, which some argued made them uncomfortable, was possibly antagonistic to their own personal belief systems and should be stopped.

Rather than fight this out in the court system, the council decided to mitigate the issue by inviting a wide variety of religious practitioners to give invocations prior to the start of the meetings. Eventually, it seems they ran short on various and sundry faith systems and I am told occasionally just have a moment of silence, which in its own way, is the answer to a prayer.

The city of Greece, New York, however, took a different approach and over an 11-year span, has been opening almost all council meetings with prayers that have a definite Christian theme. This inevitably led to a court challenge which eventually found its way to the U.S. Supreme Court for review. In Monday’s ruling the court said that was all right.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the majority decision, which is quoted in The Denver Post, indicating that the prayers are mostly ceremonial and in keeping with the nation’s traditions.

The opinion further states, “the inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.”

He is also quoted as writing “government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy.”

This is a sensible restatement of what the majority of the country and certainly our community has been saying for a while.

Part of his justification for allowing Christian prayer in such a setting was that those offended by such conduct were free to step out of the room during the practice.

This seems to indicate entities, like Grand Junction’s City Council, could return to their practice of opening meetings with a Christian prayer or invocation, so long as it is not overly evangelical. The prayer is seen as an acknowledgment of traditional societal values — not an endorsement of a state religion.

This ruling also might have some effect on similar types of issues, some of which have been dealt with locally, specifically the presence of a Ten Commandments monument on public property.

Many will remember the solution by the city of Grand Junction to complaints about such a monument was to create a garden of root documents intrinsic to our nation’s traditions, of which the Ten Commandments is one.

The state capital of Oklahoma is home to a monument exactly like the one present here; however, the monument was erected and maintained by private funding, although on public property.

This has led the Church of Satan in New York to commission a statue representing its namesake as a pentagram-inscribed, goat-headed figure instructing some children about something or the other. The figure is designed such that appreciative parties may seat themselves in its lap to be photographed or perhaps for a brief cuddle.

News reports reveal Oklahoma’s Capitol Preservation Commission has also received requests for monuments from a Hindu group and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. All projects are on hold as the state is being sued over the presence of the Ten Commandments.

I’m not saying this sort of thing might not be a bonanza tourist attraction and ratchet up some T-shirt sales. However, this struggle underlines the essential miscalculation of thinking any religious or even nonreligious expression, no matter its origin, should be held equivalent to long- and widely held traditions of a community.

They are not congruent in all contexts, and it seems the language of this recent case, Greece vs. Galloway, might bring a bit of clarity to situations that — even here—  can become a bit silly.

Rick Wagner writes more about politics on his blog, The War on Wrong.


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