The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that a town in upstate New York was free to begin its monthly board meetings with a prayer. The ruling appears to reverse the decision in Vermont two years ago forbidding the town of Franklin from beginning town meeting with a prayer of its own.
The issue of prayer and the public sector turns on two competing notions of religious freedom. According to the First Amendment, every citizen is free to worship, or not worship, as he or she pleases. Also, the government is forbidden from establishing an official religion.
For many years, town officials in Greece, New York, began their board meetings with a Christian prayer. They viewed it as a ceremonial acknowledgment of the importance of religion, and since there were only Christian churches within the borders of the town, they used only Christian prayers. After a citizen filed suit objecting to the prayer, officials included prayers from other denominations a few times.
Anyone who wonders about whether such a prayer is appropriate can perform a simple mental exercise. Imagine that you have a complaint to lodge with your town board and when you go to the board’s meeting to discuss it, the board begins its session with a Muslim prayer offered by a mullah. If you are a Christian or a nonreligious citizen, it is likely that you will experience a feeling of exclusion, as if the board was part of a club of which you were not a member.
That is what Jews and Catholics sometimes feel when they go to the official meeting of a public body that is initiated with a seemingly innocuous Protestant prayer. If unchallenged, public officials who establish that sort of regular religious practice have established an official religion.
Supporters of prayer at public meetings, including prayer in schools, say they are exercising their own freedom of religion. They argue further that their prayers are merely ceremonial, like the prayers with which Congress and the Vermont Legislature begin their sessions.
A citizen who has business with a public board, however, has no choice but to deal with that board, and the atmosphere of exclusion created by a sectarian prayer creates a barrier that, until the recent case, the Constitution did not permit. In contrast, people are not required to run for Congress or the Legislature, and the ceremonial prayers offered there are ecumenical or not religious at all.
It’s hard to take on the majority, as Marilyn Hackett did in Franklin, a small town on the Canadian border. She had made a nuisance of herself in her town, and after she won her case in District Court, some of her neighbors were resentful. They thought she was imposing her views on them.
But people who are barred from praying at public events are not barred from praying. They can pray with perfect freedom at church or at home. But when public business is conducted with the blessing of a particular religion, the public is not able to conduct its business free of someone else’s religion.
A pluralistic society requires forbearance from all of us — a willingness to refrain from the assertion of our own personal creeds in a way that creates barriers for others or excludes them or establishes a hierarchy of acceptable beliefs. Proponents of official prayer may argue that Hackett and the plaintiffs in New York should themselves practice restraint, letting town officials pray if they like. But town officials have a responsibility not to push their own religious beliefs on others, even if they are in the majority. Hackett did not prevent anyone from praying.
It is likely that the people of Franklin and other towns that favor official prayer will be persuaded by the latest Supreme Court decision to re-establish the practice of prayer at town meeting. With the precedent established by the Supreme Court, they will be free to do so. But doing so, they serve themselves, rather than the broad spectrum of the public whom they are supposed to be serving.
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