In the Bible we read several times of a heavenly court sitting in judgment on human affairs. It seems only right and proper that the Creator might critique His creation. However, there is something unsettling about the U.S. Supreme Court sitting in judgment on what constitutes acceptable prayers.
The U.S. Constitution is quite explicit in its intention to prohibit the establishment of religion in the United States—not just a particular religious structure such as Christianity or Protestantism, but "religion" in general. Likely a providential enactment, as the men of our early government showed a strong personal bias for religious expression in their public duties. They were comfortable with generalized prayers at various state functions, and to this day our government supports chaplains in Congress and in the military. This lax attitude has continued due to a loose take on the second clause of the religion amendment: the clause that enjoins Congress to "not prevent the free exercise thereof." Of course there is a gap between not preventing and promoting.
The courts have moved within that gap with much deliberation over the years. Most of the public profession of religion that lingers in government today they have waved a judicial wand over and called it "ceremonial deism” -- or religion removed of its particular significance. That should worry any religionist who thinks such public usage has some spiritual value, but it brings the aberrations into line constitutionally.
Thomas Jefferson had opinions on the role of religion and prayer in public life, and he was clear enough: "I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of affecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it."
In essence, it is better if the government remains civil and secular itself, but encourages citizens toward any public or private expression of religion that moves them. The current prayer conundrum before the court is, in my view, not complicated by law, but by precedent. And it teeters on the edge of formalizing a dangerous precedent.
In examining the constitutionality of prayers offered before the town government of Greece, New York (a little democratic irony in the name), the justices appear to have gotten mixed up in a choice between the Solomonic task of deciding what prayers are acceptably generic enough, or appearing to oppose faith expression in and of itself. It troubles me in reading some of the court transcript how blithely the justices and even legal counsel pass over the inevitability of some being offended by any faith presentation. They hope for a prayer removed of not only any sectarian markers, but acceptable by all major belief systems. That truly would be a "ceremonial" prayer of little value beyond a syncretistic statement of state support. The justices have opined that the monitoring of such prayers is best left to the clergy and not by state oversight. Procedurally that is naïve. Both Professor Laycock (who argued on behalf of two residents of Greece— Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist) and the justices agreed that things were easier when it was a majority Protestant community. But that admission only really speaks to the willingness of both parties in the past to blur the issue as it suited them.
What I find truly startling in the court dialog is the acceptance that some religious and secular groups on the fringe will be offended and left out. While this may be a necessary reality of any prayer, it only underscores the safety in no prayer. If we have a government proceeding with religious expression in the sure knowledge that some people of faith will be excluded and offended, then we have the beginning of a mindset that can later repress certain religious expression as opposed to the public good.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."