Recent Court Case Opens Door For Nonreligious Inclusion? Maybe… Maybe Not

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City council members praying before a meetingThe recent US Supreme Court decision, Town Of Greece, New York v. Galloway, opened the door to ‘legislative’ prayer that can be said at the beginning of a government meeting or event. Although the court said that government can’t proscribe the content of such prayers, it did give some guidelines on what prayer would pass a constitutional test. Some nonreligious groups are creating programs to offer people who would give nonreligious ‘prayers’. Some conservative governments have taken the court decision as a green light to only allow Christian prayers. This issue is far from being solved.

In the court decision, handed down on May 5th, Justice Kennedy wrote:

The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech. 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.

In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no constraints remain on its content. The relevant constraint derives from its place at the opening of legislative sessions, where it 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 ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function. If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.

Town Of Greece, New York v. Galloway (2014)

Of course the better decision would be to prohibit legislative prayer (as I point out in Supreme Court Degrades Christianity With Town Of Greece V. Galloway Ruling) but the Court said that if the government opens with a prayer, it has to invite all points of view to give the “prayer” – this is similar to court rulings that have said if you have a public forum – like the lawn of a court house, you have to allow all points of view or none of them. The government can’t pick and choose.

Sure the text of the ruling doesn’t make any explicit reference to allowing atheists to give prayers, but since the ruling says the government can’t police the content then it infers that atheists have to be allowed to give the “prayer”. I chalk up the lack of clarity to the fact that the person who wrote the decision is a believer. I don’t think it crossed his mind to make it explicit that the “prayer” can be nonreligious.

I could also be wrong and Justice Kennedy really did mean to exclude atheists.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has decided that if it can’t keep out legislative prayer then it will get in line to give them. It has started a new project called Operation Inclusion:

“The Supreme Court’s misguided ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway threatens to subject millions of Americans to prayers imposed by the government at the behest of Religious Right zealots who believe that America is a ‘Christian nation,'” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “Our plan is designed to educate legislators and citizens so they know what this decision really says.”

AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan said some local officials appear to be already misinterpreting the Greece decision. For example, in Roanoke County, Va., a supervisor announced his intention to allow only Christians to offer pre-meeting prayers. In Sussex County, Del., some officials are pressing to return to recitation of the Lord’s Prayer to open meetings.

Neither of these schemes, Khan said, is permissible under the Greece ruling.

“Some people are getting the idea that the Greece decision creates a Wild West of government-sponsored prayer,” Khan said. “That’s not the case. There are still rules, and we intend to make certain they are followed.”

Americans United Announces Response To Misguided Supreme Court Ruling On Legislative Prayer

Operation Inclusion will consist of four points:

  • Fighting attempts by Religious Right groups that seek to compel local governments to include prayer.
  • Educating local officials and members of the community about the parameters of the decision.
  • Mobilizing local activists to ensure the inclusion of all points of view.
  • Investigating violations of the ruling.
  • The American Humanist Association is also getting on the bandwagon by creating a list of AHA members who would be willing to give invocations. The program also provide support and example invocations to use.

    In a way, the concept of a secular invocation is quite simple: It is essentially a short speech that calls upon the audience’s shared human values for assistance and authority in their public discourse. Unlike a traditional invocation, a secular invocation does not call upon a supernatural entity as a guide. It redirects our attention away from those supernatural entities towards those common human values that we do in fact share for guidance. It emphasizes the bounds within which our public discourse should be held, without disenfranchising certain groups. It reminds us of what is important and of our responsibilities to each other and the world around us. In a sense it is calling upon all those involved to exercise their humanity in a way that is dignified while allowing the same for others.

    Secular Invocations

    As Americans United pointed out, some governments are already trying to exclude anyone who isn’t Christian so there will be more court cases and more obstacles to government religious neutrality.

    The Friendly Atheist had a post about a citizenship ceremony kicked out a New Jersey city hall because it wouldn’t include a prayer:

    About 30 people were set to become naturalized U.S. citizens over the weekend in Carteret, New Jersey, but the ceremony had to be moved after Carteret Mayor Daniel Reiman (below) insisted that the event had to include a religious prayer.

    Reiman said yesterday that although he assured officials from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that the prayer would be nondenominational, the agency declined to allow the prayer.

    “They refused to budge on that,” Reiman said this evening.

    “I told them (employees of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) they’re no longer allowed to use city hall,” he said.

    Citizenship Ceremony Forced to Change Venues After Carteret (New Jersey) Mayor Insists on Including Prayer

    Yep, legislative prayer is not divisive at all….


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    1 thought on “Recent Court Case Opens Door For Nonreligious Inclusion? Maybe… Maybe Not

    1. David Williamson

      Already have four invocations lined up for the Central Florida Freethought Community. #MakingLemonade

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