In Washington D.C. today the highest court in the United States Supreme Court will take up a case that examines whether a town government in upstate New York is violating the separation of church and state by allowing their board meetings to begin with prayer.
Here are the facts.
Greece, New York has a population of just under 100,000. The Rochester suburb has regular town board meetings. Traditionally, those meetings were opened with a moment of silence. When John Auberger was elected as supervisor in 1999, he instituted formal invocations given by a rotating group of clergymen. From 1999 to 2007, invocations were rendered at the beginning of every town board meeting. The prayers were given from an exclusively Christian perspective during that period of time.
In 2008, residents Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, issued a complaint. The two non-Christians said “they felt both coerced to participate and isolated during the ceremony.”
The town leaders immediately broadened their invitation to include a wider representation of prayer-givers. Four of the 12 meetings in 2008 included non-Christian prayers. A Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess, and a Baha’i leader were among those who offered prayers. Still, the majority of prayers were offered from a Christian perspective. Tom Hungar, who represents the town noted, “The houses of worship in Greece community are predominantly Christian. But anyone is free to pray.” He went on to add that “the plaintiffs in this case were both offered the opportunity to deliver invocations.”
Galloway and Stephens ultimately brought suit in 2010, alleging that the offering of a public prayer violates the First Amendment’s ban on government establishment of religion. A lower court found that there was not sufficient evidence that Greece intentionally cut out non-Christians invocations. Galloway and Stephens won an appeal in May 2012 when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that people of other faiths should have been included more broadly. Greece appealed this latter decision and in May 2013, the Supreme Court agreed to hear and settle the case once and for all.
Douglas Laycock is representing the plaintiffs. He is a law professor at the University of Virginia and esteemed as one of the nation’s leading scholars in this area. He asserts that if the town wants to have prayers at the beginning of meetings, then it should have guidelines for nonsectarian prayers. Hungar counters that government should not be in the business of telling people how to pray. “Government is not supposed to be in the business of telling prayer-givers what the content of their prayers should be.”
To the surprise of many, the Obama administration is siding with the town. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli wrote,
“The unbroken history of the offering of prayer in Congress, for example, has included a large majority of Christian prayer-givers and a substantial number of prayers with identifiable sectarian references. Neither federal courts nor legislative bodies are well suited to police the content of such prayers and this Court has consistently disapproved of government interference in dictating the substance of prayers.”
What are the possible outcomes of the case?
While pundits agree that the case could go in a multitude of directions, a few seem to have the most potential.
The Court could rule broadly, declaring that prayer is generally allowed, even prayer with sectarian content. A decision of this ilk would put much of the debate over public prayer to rest.
If the Court rules more narrowly, then context of prayer and public meetings would need to be examined. For example, if attendance is mandatory at certain meetings, that would force people to be subjected to prayers who may not wish to do so.
Regardless of the Court’s ruling, the Christian worldview is under fire. Issues such as right-to-life, traditional family models, and public school curriculum debates have marginalized Christian beliefs. The secular humanistic perspective, which meets all the criteria of being a religious view point, has won the day in our political realm. What I find most baffling is that Christians are offended by the fact that our society is not a theocracy. I see the rapid secularization around us as opportunity. The once-held idea of a cultural Christian is eroding. Many will abandon the arm’s length approach to serving Jesus as it becomes more and more unpopular. I see that as a good thing. We will be left with a purer church – one that is theologically rich, devotionally hot, and recklessly biblical. We should not be surprised at the loss of our freedoms. Second Timothy 3:12 states, “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” Are we ready for that?
As controversial as it may sound, I almost side with these two ladies. While I think their lawsuit is frivolous and petty, I see it through a different lens. What if the day is coming where true Christians are a minority in our culture? What if the predominant prayers that are offered at graduations and before government meetings were Muslim or Hindu? I wouldn’t ultimately be dismayed by that, as long as the Gospel got equal time. I believe in a free marketplace of ideas, the Gospel will win. What I fear is that we are steaming towards a culture where there is no true marketplace of ideas.
A Final word about this case: While I understand that these legal battles need to be fought, I see great potential danger in them on two fronts. First, I think we might be tempted to think that winning legislative battles is somehow equal to winning our neighbors to Christ. Jesus told us to go into the world and make disciples, not Christian legislation. Again, I realize the importance of these battles and support the cause, but I’m afraid we may forget that the greatest battles need to be fought in our neighborhoods. Second, I fear that many will fight for the privilege to pray in public while they fail to pray in private. The church is woefully lacking in prayer. We must not be hypocritical on this front, asking for the privilege to be something in public that we lazily fail to be in private.