Ahh it’s that season again. The pollen is finally beginning to settle from the air, Washington, DC’s famous cherry blossoms have begun falling from their branches, swirling through the streets of our Nation’s capital, be-suited men and women are arriving to work with light beads of sweat on their foreheads. It’s beginning to heat up in The District.
It’s not just the beginning of summer. Nope, it’s Decision Season, when the Supreme Court hands down their adjudication from on high after months of deliberation.
The last couple of weeks have revealed many controversial decisions, most notably with McCutcheon v FEC, which abolished the overall limit of how much individuals could give to political campaigns during a year and reinstating Michigan’s state-constitutional ban on Affirmative Action in schools. The SCOTUS stirs the pot further with a ruling on public prayer this week, and there is no shortage of commentary.
Last Thursday, May 1st, was the National Day of Prayer. The President said a few words and signed a proclamation (just like many Presidents before him), and many religious and center-right groups celebrated the day as a way to reinforce the importance of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.
It is only appropriate then, that this decision should happen this week, hot off the debate about whether there should be an official National Day of Prayer or not. The Freedom from Religion Foundation, in particular, used the day as a chance to advertise their case against publicly-sanctioned religious traditions.
In a 5-4 decision, the SCOTUS ruled that the city of Greece, New York, has the right to open their city council meetings with prayer. Not only this, but the prayer doesn’t have to be radically inclusive or non-sectarian, it just can’t be critical of other religions.
While the prayer was nearly always led by a Christian, the city maintains that there is an open invitation to “a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could lead the invocation’
Justice Anthony Kennedy makes several interesting points in the majority opinion he wrote. One section in particular caught my eye:
“To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing nor approving the prayers in advance nor criticizing the content after the fact. Respondents’ contrary arguments are unpersuasive. It is doubtful that consensus could be reached as to what qualifies as a generic or nonsectarian prayer. It would also be unwise to conclude that only those religious words acceptable to the majority are permissible, for the First Amendment is not a majority rule and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech.” (emphasis added)
Justice Kennedy also emphasized over and over again that prayer is not only an expression of religious freedom, it is also deeply ingrained in the American tradition. But this is where I must respectfully disagree with Justice Kennedy. As a religious person, and a big fan of the First Amendment in general, the “tradition” of prayer means much less to me than the content of the prayer itself.
More than just to “lend gravity” to the setting, a prayer (in the Christian context) should be a sincere attempt to open our hearts to the will of Almighty God, putting aside personal feelings and judgements and aspirations for the betterment of all people.
While I agree with Justice Kennedy’s assertion that, though this may make non-theists or non-Christian theists uncomfortable, “offense does not equate to coercion,” Justice Kennedy seems to give too much weight to the aspect of “tradition.”
It should not be because of a “tradition” that people are allowed to freely practice their religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment, and it should never be because of a “tradition” that people are forced to participate either.
There should only be one justification for a person, any person at any time to practice their religion or lack thereof, and that is their own moral compunction. Which is, in theory, the original purpose of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses in the first place. Downgrading a religious act that is deeply important to people across nearly all faiths to simply a “tradition” makes the guarantee of religious freedom seemingly unnecessary. Why not just have freedom of speech? I argue that without one it is exceedingly difficult to have the other, and both are vital to a free society.