The Billings Outpost

Prayer decision has parts to offend everyone

Billings Gazette Editor Darrell Ehrlick began his May 18 column with the phrase “God Bless America,” then quickly added that he meant it literally, not “as some obligatory phrase tacked onto the end of a speech.”

His need to explain what he really meant tells you almost everything you need to know about how degraded religious speech has become in America. Even our Kenyan-Marxist-Muslim-socialist president ends his speeches with “God bless America,” proof enough to any real conservative that the phrase has been robbed of all meaning.

Mr. Ehrlick was writing about Town of Greece vs. Galloway, a 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld a New York town’s practice of holding invocations at the beginning of public meetings. Plaintiffs complained that the prayers were almost exclusively Christian and promoted specific religious beliefs.

At its heart, the case was about how debased religious speech has to be before it is allowed into the public square. The court’s ruling was hailed as a victory for pro-prayer forces, but it contained something in it to displease everyone.

Neither the plaintiffs, nor the court’s majority opinion, nor the dissent by Justice Elena Kagan disputed the right of legislative bodies to hold public prayers at their meetings. That has been established by long tradition. As Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, noted, Congress had a chaplain before we even had a First Amendment.

The court’s sources, by the way, included Rob Natelson, a former University of Montana law professor, political gadfly and Outpost contributor.

Justice Kennedy conceded that not every founding father liked the idea of tax-supported chaplains. James Madison, the brains behind the Constitution, thought that if members of Congress wanted a chaplain, they should pay for the office themselves rather than force taxpayers to pay to promulgate religious beliefs they may not share.

Madison lost that argument, and public prayers have been part of legislative meetings ever since. That’s OK with the Supreme Court, even if some citizens object; as both Justice Kennedy and Mr. Ehrlick point out, the Constitution does not guarantee citizens a right not be offended.

True enough. My right to call Mr. Ehrlick’s column festering swill is not abridged by whatever offense he might take at that characterization. But it is one thing for newspaper editors to trade insults; it is quite another when the government is involved, as even the court’s majority conceded.

The ruling in the case might have been different, Justice Kennedy wrote, if the town of Greece had used invocations to proselytize or to condemn nonbelievers. He even conceded that the town may have occasionally crossed the line.

For example, for years the town, perhaps through oversight, invited only Christians to give the invocations, even though other religions were present in the community. After plaintiffs began raising legal objections, one guest minister characterized objectors as a “minority” who are “ignorant of the history of our country,” and another lamented that other towns did not have “God-fearing” leaders.

But sloppy bookkeeping and occasional slips are not enough reason to overturn public prayers that have a “permissible ceremonial purpose,” Justice Kennedy held. “Once it invites prayer into the public sphere,” he wrote, “government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian.”

Provided, of course, his or her conscience doesn’t dictate praying that everybody who doesn’t belong to his or her church is going to Hell. As Dahlia Lithwick put it in Slate magazine, “From now on, sectarian prayer will be permissible until it isn’t.”

In her dissent, Justice Kagan essentially argued that public prayers allowed by the majority weren’t bland enough. One gets the feeling from her opinion that only prayers sapped of all religious sentiment would get under the high bar she sets.

But she makes good points. Suppose, she wrote, a Muslim wants a traffic light or a zoning variance. She goes to the town council meeting but first has to endure a prayer “in the name of God’s only son Jesus Christ.” Should she pray along in violation of her own beliefs or step outside, as the majority suggests, and risk setting the council against her?

Justice Kagan also notes that prayers in Congress and state legislatures precede debates exclusively among members of that body. If they agree they want to hear a prayer, that’s their business.

The average citizen can’t go on the floor of Congress and enter the debate, but town council meetings are full of average citizens who want to participate in deliberations. In Montana, their right to do so is guaranteed by the state constitution.

In such a setting, public prayer amounts to a mini-church service, Justice Kagan wrote, and the government has no business holding church.

In a footnote, she also mentions that even some religious groups object to public prayers. They base that belief on a source even more hallowed than James Madison: Jesus Christ himself, who said that prayers should be a private matter between Christians and God, not an ostentatious display of public righteousness.

Madison, who opposed not only chaplains but also national days of prayer, noted that the state of Virginia rejected a tax that would have supported all religions after churches united against it. They successfully argued, he wrote (the abbreviations are his own), “that the better proof of reverence for that holy name wd be not to profane it by making it a topic of legisl. discussion, & particularly by making his religion the means of abridging the natural and equal rights of all men, in defiance of his own declaration that his Kingdom was not of this world.”

Madison had little patience for the argument that, unlike a tax, public prayers aren’t coercive. Anything that government endorses, even just by resolution, is inherently coercive, he argued: “An advisory Govt is a contradiction in terms.”

Jesus and Madison both saw what America would become: a country that invites prayer into the public square, but only in a degraded, sapless fashion for purely ceremonial purposes. Real prayer, with real meaning, has no place there, and the Supreme Court can’t change that.

God bless America.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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