Ruling is a huge victory for religious liberty
By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
May 5, 2014
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court’s Monday ruling that having a prayer at the start of a government meeting does not violate the Constitution was the result of a lawsuit filed in Greece, N.Y. But the decision should lead plenty of elected officials in North Carolina to offer a heartfelt, “Amen!”
“This is a clear, common-sense ruling on an issue that has dogged many town councils and county commissions here in the Tar Heel state,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “Attacks on free speech had truly become a weapon that atheists and organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union used to silence Christians and, at the very least, keep them from praying as their conscience dictates. We are thrilled to learn of the Supreme Court ruling which should give government bodies that already open meetings with prayer new confidence to continue to do so, and hopefully, will inspire others who have been intimidated by ACLU threats or even sued and have stopped the practice of prayer to now revive it.”
The Supreme Court case — Town of Greece v. Galloway — began in 2007 when Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens claimed prayers offered by local clergy aligned the town with one religion. Although most of the prayers were Christian, reflecting the faith of the majority of the town’s 94,000 population, the town board assured the women the opportunity to pray was afforded to anyone and took extra steps to host a Jewish layman, a Baha’i temple official and a Wiccan priestess, who learned of the controversy and asked to offer an invocation.
The District Court ruled in the town’s favor, finding no authority for the proposition that the First Amendment required Greece to invite clergy from congregations beyond its borders simply to achieve a minimum level of religious diversity. But a Court of Appeals reversed that ruling, which thankfully brought the case to the Supreme Court’s attention.
Its 5-4 decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, confirmed that prayer at the opening of legislative sessions is “meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the nation’s heritage.”
“Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideas and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function,” Kennedy wrote.
While Justice Elena Kagan argued in her dissent that prayers at the town meetings in Greece did not show understanding that the American community is “a rich mosaic of religious faiths,” the ruling affirmed that the nation’s tradition of pre-meeting prayer “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.”
Even if Galloway and Stephens were offended by what they heard, that doesn’t mean the prayers were unconstitutional, the Court said.
“Offense … does not equate to coercion,” Kennedy wrote. “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.”
Dr. Creech hailed that portion of the ruling as especially significant in light of today’s culture which has left many afraid to express any belief for fear they will be accused of offending someone.
“We were disappointed in early 2012 when the High Court refused to take up the Forsyth County prayer case, which was very similar to this Greece, N.Y., case,” he said. “But this ruling should make it clear across the land that prayers before meetings, as long as they do not denigrate or proselytize, are clearly not an establishment of religion.”
Instead, the ruling calls such ceremonial prayer “a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs.”
Further, the Court ruled that pre-meeting prayers do not have to be nonsectarian to be legal.
“Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, 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,” Kennedy wrote.
The ruling obviously frustrated the ACLU of North Carolina, which issued a statement calling it “a disappointing setback for the rights of citizens of all beliefs to be treated equally by their government.”
The ACLU and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have led the attack against prayer at meetings in North Carolina, sending threatening letters to boards that allow prayer. Last year the ACLU filed suit against the Rowan County Board of Commissioners for their sectarian invocations, which resulted in a court ordered halt to the prayers.
“We understand that this ruling won’t change the situation in Rowan as that case involves prayers by commissioners and is still in progress,” said Dr. Creech. “Nonetheless, we’re encouraged to hear already that the ruling is having a ripple effect by giving boldness to boards to keep or reintegrate opening prayer in their gatherings.”
The Alamance County Board of Commissioners had adopted a policy in February 2012 that barred prayer from the formal agenda and had ensured that invocations were given before the official start of any meeting. Now, at least one commissioner has said he’ll push to have the prayers conducted as part of the opening of meetings.
Bill Reilich, town supervisor of Greece, N.Y., told the media the case was about more than just his municipality.
“It’s freedom of speech,” Reilich said. “It’s beyond even religion. It’s reaffirming what our country was founded on. It’s much bigger than the town of Greece.”
Both the U.S. House and Senate have opened with prayers since 1789.