The Supreme Court yesterday heard an important case on the role of prayers at city government meetings. Unfortunately, it will be next June before we hear the outcome of the case, which seems painfully long in this day and age. The event got quite a bit of what you might call “second-page” coverage by the media. It was not the lead story, but several newspapers chimed in on what they saw as the key issues.
For example, the Los Angeles Times wrote “Public prayer case appears to perplex Supreme Court” and CNN said “Supreme Court divided on God in government”. But, of course, we only know the questions that were asked at this point. The ruling itself will not be announced until June 2014.
The outcome against government prayers could be 9-0, or 8-1. Abington v. Schemp, which declared school-sponsored Bible reading in public school to be unconstitutional, was decided by a vote of 8-1 and that was way back in 1963.
However, history of the current court suggests a 5-4 ruling is much more likely with Chief Justice John Roberts as the swing vote. CNN noted that Roberts was particularly vocal, noting:
“It just seems to me that enforcing that standard involves the state very heavily in the censorship and the approval or disapproval of prayers,” he said. “I’m serious about this. This involves government very heavily in religion.”
The cleanest solution for Roberts would be to follow Abington v. Schemp and say that prayers are not to part of the public part of a local government meeting.
For a more complete analysis, it worth listening to the Thursday, November 7, 2013 broadcast of The Diane Rehm Show. Guest host Tom Gjelten discussed the court case for almost a full hour with Jeffrey Rosen, Barry Lynn, and Mark Rienzi. A critical point was made by Barry Lynn of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. He note that this case is very different from a legislative prayer before a session of Congress where the prayer is “in-house” so to speak. Congressional prayers are given to the legislative body. This is not the case in the Greece NY, where citizens are coming to the meeting to conduct business. The audience (the public) in Greece was confronted by a preacher, who is turned to toward the crowd. The preacher is standing behind a podium, which contains the town seal, telling the town folk that THEY have come in the name of Jesus. Here are actual quotes from some of the opening prayers:
- “God’s blessed us tremendously and so, it reminds me of just one verse in the Bible about our Lord’s coming, about the birth of Christ. . . . ‘For unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given. And the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called wonderful, counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting father, and the Prince of Peace.” [Quoting Isaiah 9:6]. J.A. 94a.
- “O Lord we thank you once again that you are directing our lives and directing this town. We give you all the praise and glory and honor in Jesus’ name.” J.A. 31a.
- “[A]nd Lord we ask you to bless us all, that everything we do here tonight will move you to welcome us one day into your kingdom as good and faithful servants. We ask this in the name of our brother Jesus. Amen.” J.A. 45a.
If that is not reason to end this practice, I don’t know what is.