Relying on the sensitivity of others

May 15, 2014

As a minority in every land but one, many Jews and Jewish groups expressed discomfort with or outright condemnation of last week’s Supreme Court ruling to allow sectarian prayers at local government-sponsored town hall meetings. The fact that Jews comprised three of the four justices in the minority in Town of Greece v. Galloway was noted by more than one commentator.

The case was brought by Susan Galloway, a Jew, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, against the governing council in the Upstate New York town of Greece, which since 1999 has opened its meetings with a prayer, almost always by a Christian clergyman who at times charged across the line of religious respect and into the territory of outright proselytizing.

The court’s majority ruled that assuring that the invocations were nonsectarian would require, as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the opinion, governments “to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech.”

While the court has left it to individuals to appeal publicly to God in the manner they choose, it made clear that the decision does not allow for coercive behavior or otherwise permit behavior that infringes on the religious beliefs of others. How well this succeeds depends on how sensitive those giving the invocation and the town government that chooses them are to the minorities in their midst. In the case of the Town of Greece — or closer to home in Carroll County, Md., where the Board of Commissioners has taken to invoking the name of Jesus at the start of their meetings — our expectations for such high-minded sensitivity are low.

The arguments of some Jewish constitutional law scholars in favor of the court’s decision suggest that the Jewish community is not monolithic. And there is a view expressed by supporters that Jews are better off in an America that allows accommodation for greater sectarian religious expression.

Whether it was the recent Hobby Lobby case, in which some Jewish groups supported that company’s religious opposition to birth control mandates in the Affordable Care Act, or the court cases of the 1970s that opened the way for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement’s ubiquitous public menorah displays, there is a sizable stream in American political life that reads in the separation of church of state plenty of room for religion in the public square. While we admire the embrace of religion by so many Americans, as well as by so many of those who govern the hamlets, cities, states and agencies of this great country, Jews know all too well how quickly the religion of the majority can be used as a weapon with which to inflict its will against the minority.

For those who feel a religion-blind government is best for Jews, including those who are uncomfortable with the Town of Greece decision, we hope the public square can accommodate them as well.

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