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Supreme Court Rules in Favor of Prayer in Advance of Governmental Meetings

The Supreme Court decided whether governments may allow local clergy to say a prayer in advance of governmental meetings. The question is whether such a prayer, with a notable Christian theme, violates the First Amendment’s prohibition on government-established religion. The Court split 5-4, ruling that the practices does not violate the First Amendment. The Court’s division reflects the divisiveness the issue has created among our citizens.

The plaintiffs were two women who attended board meetings of the town of Greece, New York and found offensive the repeated Christian references in the prayers. The Court noted that after the women complained, a Jewish laymen and a Wiccan priestess were allowed to give “invocations” in advance of the meetings. The Court refers to the Christian-themed prayers as “ceremonial prayers,” a term seemingly intended to reduce the significance of the clergy’s message.

Though I express no opinion on the outcome of the case, the majority’s reasoning is somewhat troubling, as it rests heavily upon the idea that such prayers are constitutional because they follow a long tradition of prayer before legislative sessions, both federal and state. In other words, the practice is constitutionally acceptable because it has been occurring for a very long time in this country. That seems a precarious justification, and one wonders whether a defendant charged with gender discrimination would be justified in arguing that it is traditional and therefore legal to pay women less than men, and the offensive practice is not about gender, it’s about saving money.

In her dissent, Justice Kagan seemed most concerned about the slippery slope the Court’s ruling creates, and less concerned about the actual content of the prayer read at the beginning of board meetings, which she found infringed on the First Amendment. The dissent posited numerous hypotheticals that might become reality in a broad effort to expand religion into the deeper edifices of governmental meetings.

These cases always are about drawing lines. In this the line is neither bright nor distinct, but is blurred throughout. That nine of our most able jurists are almost evenly split on the issue will undoubtedly lead to more challenges and debate on the topic. It certainly is not the last word on what our governmental bodies may do in the name of tradition. How will this affect life in Asheville and WNC? We welcome your thoughts.

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