A Matter of Interpretation

Reaction is mixed as to whether the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling this month allowing local governments to begin their meetings with a sectarian prayer will lead to more religion in the public arena or possibly even government funding of religious schools.

In the case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, the majority of justices said Christian prayer at a public meeting does not violate the constitutional provision forbidding government from establishing a religion. The five-member majority agreed that as long as no one is coerced into participating in the prayer, it was permissible.

Attorney Nathan Lewin, who agreed with the ruling, believes it could be influential in paving the way for public financial aid to Jewish day schools. “This is one of the steps saying, fine, it is not against the law” to support private religious schools, he said.

But others disagree, including Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center. The court’s belief about coercion is not new, he said.  Diament believes that funding issues are different.

It is permissible to use funds to repair a religious building if it’s in a depressed area, but that has little to do with religion, Diament said, explaining the courts have allowed government money to be used to fix up a section of downtown Detroit that included some churches.

Courts have ruled that it is OK to give funds to religious institutions as long as the money is not used for religious purposes, Diament explained. One example of that is the use of school buses by both public and private schools.

Marc Stern, general counsel at the AJC, said there has long been an exception allowing prayer at legislative meetings and that the recent ruling is not all that new. Even the four justices who dissented, including all the Jewish members, did not want to outlaw sectarian prayers, Stern said. “They just wanted to be sensitive and make sure you have a broad array of people” leading prayers.

His concern is not so much what the justices ruled as how individual towns will interpret it. He said a Christian prayer opening a meeting at a town in the Bible Belt is one thing. But what if a court proceeding begins with a religious, Christian prayer, and the person charged with a crime cannot leave the room?

“I think a lot of people are going to say, ‘We don’t want [religious prayers] at our meetings.’ We’ll have to see how that plays out,” Stern said. “This is going to be very interesting to watch.”

Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, the Jewish day school network, also did not necessary believe the courts will favorably consider public funding for religious schools following their recent ruling, calling that view “a leap.”

“We as an organization that is designed to advocate and support and guide Jewish day schools clearly believe in the power of prayer,” Kramer said. However, RAVSAK does not want to see religion promoted in public, Kramer added, explaining that neither a Christmas nativity scene nor a menorah belongs in the public square.

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