Monday, May 5, 2014

Lost their minds

Earlier today, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that found, among other things, that a New York town's practice of inviting various town clergy members to deliver an invocation before each meeting of the town council was constitutional, even though in practice the prayers were delivered exclusively by Christian ministers, and those prayers almost always invoked Jesus, sometimes in an expressly exclusive manner.

The decision was 5-4 along the usual lines.  The conservative justices endorsed the practice--even concluding that it was unnecessary, and perhaps even impermissible, for the Town to impose content limitations on the prayers, such as a requirement that the prayers be made inclusive of and acceptable to all faiths--largely based upon what it termed a long tradition of such prayers before legislative assemblies.  Indeed, the conservative justices seemed horrified at the prospect of adopting a ruling that would cast doubt on the legitimacy of that long tradition.

The liberal wing, for its part, would have been prepared to accept the prayers if only the town had either made more of an effort to include prayers from other religious traditions, or had instructed those chosen to make their prayers inclusive of all faiths.

I think they have all lost their minds.

"Tradition" is not a sufficient reason to uphold any practice as constitutional.  After all, there was a long tradition of racial segregation in public life; that did not stop the Supreme Court from deciding Brown v. Board of Education unanimously to end that tradition.  As our society evolves, we develop new experiences that inform our understanding of the principles our Constitution establishes.

What I found curiously missing from each of the opinions released today--there were five--is any discussion of the essential conditions that would have led the Court to a decision that honors the Constitution, rather than cheapens it as a statement of principles.  In fact, the assumption underlying all of the justices' views was that this is a matter of ecumenicism, because all comers have a faith to speak of.

To see what these prayers really should be discontinued, first we must ask why they exist in the first place.  If we take the proponents of the prayers at their word, these prayers are meant to solemnize the process of lawmaking by acknowledging the guidance of a supreme being.  I suppose that if you believe in a supreme being who is involved in human affairs, such an acknowledgement might make good sense.

I don't think anyone is suggesting that such an acknowledgement should be prohibited.  Every person who attends a town council meeting in Greece, New York, is free to make that sort of acknowledgement on his or her own.  Where the wicket gets sticky is that the proponents of this measure aren't satisfied with that acknowledgement being "on your own."  They insist that it be not only public but also an officially recognized ceremonial act that precedes every meeting.

There is a similar push among those who want official prayer in schools.  Children are free to pray in schools all they like.  What is prohibited is the thing that advocates want most:  The ability to use the school's seal of approval as an element of coercion to a particular religion.

And, despite the Court's Kabuki-like effort to couch these prayers as an innocuous practice rooted in longstanding tradition, the fact that the Town of Greece hosts these prayers at all is to give special status to religious belief--and Christianity specifically--as the mark of a "good" participant in the political process.

The assumption underlying both sides of the Court is that the perception by anyone of a problem with public prayer is that it is simply not inclusive enough.  One side of the Court, the majority, seems to think that a lack of inclusiveness in these prayers, as long as it is not purposeful, is A-OK.  The other side, the minority, believes that the problem is that an expressly Christian prayer excludes Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and other religious minorities, so the solution is to force the prayers to become something that everyone's religion can tolerate.

The Court is made up of six Catholics and three Jews.  All five in the majority are Catholic.  What seems not to have crossed the minds of any of these people, all of whom identify with a religious community, is that it is definitionally impossible to craft a prayer that includes everyone, because there is some segment of the public, however small, that is atheist and that will never find any prayer to be inclusive of them.

But there is a process that would be inclusive.  Until 1999, when the Town of Greece began its current practice, the council began each meeting with a moment of silence.  That moment could be used by those present to pray, or to focus their attention on the solemnity of lawmaking, or to think about what they wanted to eat for breakfast.  That was truly inclusive, and it was in fact the only way that could accommodate the religious sensibilities of the majority while respecting the rights of those who dissent from the majority religion.

In the absence of a public prayer, all are free to pray, or not to pray, individually as they see fit.  When there is an official, public prayer, those who prefer not to pray are faced with an uncomfortable choice:  participate in the prayer, or risk being seen as disrespecting those who do.  When that uncomfortable choice is coupled with a legislative and/or public comment process, it amounts to coercion.  The coercion is inescapable; there is simply no way to avoid it, no matter how inclusive that prayer becomes.

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