In a 5-4 decision on Monday, the US Supreme Court said that the Town of Greece New York could open their town council meetings with a religious prayer. The majority on the court held that legislative prayers were not unconstitutional because they were traditional acts performed at government meetings. We’ve seen this argument before, it has been called Ceremonial Deism and it means a civic religion divorced of any specific religious meaning. I would think that Christians would be very upset that the court considers their religion ‘generic’. Just because Ceremonial Deism has been a tradition doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful.
One argument the court used to rule in favor of the Town of Greece was the old argument from tradition:
From the earliest days of the Nation, these invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds. These ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion. Even those who dis- agree as to religious doctrine may find common ground in the desire to show respect for the divine in all aspects of their lives and being. Our tradition 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. See Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams (Sept. 16, 1774), in C. Adams, Familiar Letters of John Adams and His Wife Abigail Adams, During the Revolution 37–38 (1876).
The prayers delivered in the town of Greece do not fall outside the tradition this Court has recognized.
One article from Think Progress said that this decision had been expected since Justice Sandra Day O’Connor left the court in 2006:
To explain, Justice O’Connor was the Court’s leading supporter of the view that government may not endorse a particular religious belief or take any action that could convey such a “message of endorsement to the reasonable observer.” This view placed her sharply at odds with the four other conservatives on the Rehnquist Court. Thus, when O’Connor was replaced with the much more conservative Justice Samuel Alito, most Court watchers expected this prohibition on government endorsements of religion to fall in short order. The most surprising thing about the Town of Greece decision isn’t that begins the process of doing so — it is that it took the Roberts Court this long to reach such a decision.
Yes, Justice O’Connor did support separation of church and state but she also supported Ceremonial Deism where legislative prayer, such as in this case, is not unconstitutional:
In Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow, 542 U.S. 1 (2004). Justice O’Connor, concurring in the opinion, invoked the term in her analysis of the nature of the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, saying in part
There are no de minimis violations of the Constitution – no constitutional harms so slight that the courts are obliged to ignore them. Given the values that the Establishment Clause was meant to serve, however, I believe that government can, in a discrete category of cases, acknowledge or refer to the divine without offending the Constitution. This category of “ceremonial deism” most clearly encompasses such things as the national motto (“In God We Trust”), religious references in traditional patriotic songs such as “The Star-Spangled Banner”, and the words with which the Marshal of this Court opens each of its sessions (“God save the United States and this honorable Court”). These references are not minor trespasses upon the Establishment Clause to which I turn a blind eye. Instead, their history, character, and context prevent them from being constitutional violations at all. [emphasis added, citations omitted]
Basically it is the idea that since these religious prayers and words have been said in legislative bodies since the United States was established then that action can never be unconstitutional. Yes, it’s ridiculous logic.
Dave Niose, with the American Humanist Association, also notes another problem with Ceremonial Deism:
The idea of an umbrella term for harmless governmental religious references might have some appeal, but use of the term “ceremonial deism” for that purpose is grossly inaccurate and even dangerous. In the real world, genuinely discriminatory governmental actions often escape scrutiny, partly because they are shielded by the euphemism of “ceremonial deism.”
The presumption underlying many religious actions that are defended by the ceremonial deism argument – that the actions are harmless – is demonstrably incorrect. Exhibit one in this regard is a Cranston, Rhode Island, high school student named Jessica Ahlquist, who became the target of threats and bullying when she objected to a prayer banner in her high school last year. Even though her objections had nothing to do with the Pledge of Allegiance, students in her school soon used the “under God” wording of the Pledge as a weapon against her.
Believing the term to be synonymous with harmless governmental religious gestures, many might rationalize acceptance of terms like the In God We Trust motto and “under God” in the Pledge, because the pleasant euphemism of “ceremonial deism” makes it easy to do so. Even many who feel somewhat uncomfortable with such governmental religiosity nevertheless realize that any battle against the religious language will be emotionally charged, likely to raise questions of patriotism, and otherwise unpleasant. Thus, rather than stand up for what’s right, it’s much easier to shrug off the religious gestures by placing them into the neat “ceremonial deism” category.
Doing so, however, only validates those who most vehemently promote governmental religiosity. As many citizens hold their noses and accept the ceremonial deism argument, choosing not to challenge governmental religiosity, triumphant religious conservatives gain more ammunition in their campaign to declare America a Christian nation. Many enlightened Americans may understand, as Justice Brennan suggested, that the religious wording should have no religious significance, but the unfortunate truth is that a many others interpret governmental religiosity as proof that real patriots must be believers.
And so with that in mind we get similar words from Justice Kagan in her dissent to the ruling:
But just for that reason, the not-so-implicit message of the majority’s opinion—”What’s the big deal, anyway?”—is mistaken. The content of Greece’s prayers is a big deal, to Christians and non-Christians alike. A person’s response to the doctrine, language, and imagery contained in those invocations reveals a core aspect of identity—who that person is and how she faces the world. And the responses of different individuals, in Greece and across this country, of course vary. Contrary to the majority’s apparent view, such sectarian prayers are not “part of our expressive idiom” or “part of our heritage and tradition,” assuming the word “our” refers to all Americans. Ante, at 19. They express beliefs that are fundamental to some, foreign toothers—and because that is so they carry the ever-present potential to both exclude and divide. The majority, I think, assesses too lightly the significance of these religious differences, and so fears too little the “religiously based divisiveness that the Establishment Clause seeks to avoid.” Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U. S. 677, 704 (2005) (BREYER, J., concurring in judgment). I would treat more seriously the multiplicity of Americans’ religious commitments, along with the challenge they can pose to the project—the distinctively American project—of creating one from the many, and governing all as united.
In order to subvert the 1st amendment, religious conservatives like Justice Kennedy and the other members of the majority, have gone with the argument that not only are legislative prayers “tradition” but that they aren’t harmful because they are basically generic in meaning.
The court’s majority holds that prayers before government meetings and events have the same meaning as someone saying “Bless You” to someone who sneezes. Really! I am not making this up.
I know a few Christians who would be upset with anyone concluding their religion lacked any real meaning.
I really liked how PZ Myers summed up this irrational need for Christians to have government sanctioned prayer: