If you live in a conservative town and want to participate in local government, be prepared to sit through prayers to Jesus Christ. That’s the upshot of today’s 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a serious blow to church-state separation and to the ability of religious minorities to comfortably participate in public life.
Many of the headlines about today’s decision say something like, “Supreme Court upholds prayer at government meetings,” but that’s not quite accurate, because prayer at public meetings was already permitted. Before today, though, it had to be non-denominational rather than sectarian. That, however, wasn’t good enough for the pious leaders of Greece, New York, a town on the outskirts of Rochester with nearly 100,000 residents. There, town meetings opened with prayers that were unabashedly Christian. As the Supreme Court wrote in the summary of the case that preceded its ruling, “While the prayer program is open to all creeds, nearly all of the local congregations are Christian; thus, nearly all of the participating prayer givers have been too.” According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which brought the case on behalf of two Greece residents—one Jewish, one atheist—about two-thirds of the prayers contained references to “Jesus,” “Jesus Christ,” “Your Son,” or the “Holy Spirit.” One guest minister even disparaged residents who objected to Christian prayer as a “minority” who are “ignorant of the history of our country.”
In 2012, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that “the town's prayer practice must be viewed as an endorsement of a particular religious viewpoint” and was thus unconstitutional. In overturning this ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy has written an opinion that is strikingly dismissive of those who’d like to attend government functions without hearing paeans to Jesus. “[T]he record here does not suggest that citizens are dissuaded from leaving the meeting room during the prayer, arriving late, or making a later protest,” he wrote. This is a strikingly low bar for government-sponsored religion—apparently it’s fine as long as non-believers aren’t forcibly subjected to it.
Not surprisingly, none of the Court’s three Jewish members bought this logic. “In arranging for clergy members to open each meeting, the Town never sought (except briefly when this suit was filed) to involve, accommodate, or in any way reach out to adherents of non-Christian religions,” wrote Elena Kagan in her dissent. “So month in and month out for over a decade, prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits.” Thanks to today’s decision, this will now be the norm in many towns besides Greece.