It is a longstanding American custom to begin public meetings with a prayer. For some participants, the ritual serves as a reminder of the solemn work about to be undertaken. Others do so because their faith teaches that prayer can affect outcomes. And still others
may find it a disturbing formality for a number of different reasons but are reluctant to rock the boat.
There is one thing on which everyone seems to agree: A public prayer cannot endorse religion or otherwise violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That’s the issue the Supreme Court has agreed to review in a case
involving the upstate New York town of Greece.
Two town residents, one Jewish and the other an atheist, sued the town council, claiming that nearly every meeting over an 11-year period opened with a prayer that stressed Christianity. A federal judge dismissed the original claim, but it was reversed on appeal. The plaintiffs said they felt marginalized by the nearly unbroken stream of Christian invocations. The town argued that its prayer policy is nondiscriminatory and that a town clerk solicited a prayer leader each month from a list of volunteers. That argument may have worked, except for the fact that the appeals court found that Greece’s list included nothing but church leaders, and it said that the Greece clerk needs to expand the search beyond the town limits. That ruling will be reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Some critics of the appellate court decision argue that the idea of a town employee, working on the taxpayer’s dime, scouring a wider and wider perimeter just to find practitioners of diverse religions seems ludicrous. Indeed, they point to the fact that in an America that is steadily more diverse, the notion that town employees will be spending time ensuring that every last belief is heard in prayer seems to be wasteful. But those arguments miss the point.
The appellate court did not require the Town of Greece or any other public entity to begin its meetings with prayer. All the court said was that if the town chooses to begin its meeting with prayer, it must do so in a nondiscriminatory manner, and it must make sure that the invocations don’t constitute an endorsement of any religion. That’s fair and makes sense. And if town elders feel they need to add solemnity to their public proceedings, they might consider filling that need with silent contemplation rather than religious rhetoric.
And during that silence, we suggest that the public officials think about the work they should be doing: collecting the trash, running the schools, managing the budget and assuring the safety of the public. Then, if the spirit moves them, perhaps they can roll up their sleeves and get to work.