This past week, the Supreme Court announced its decision on prayer in the public sphere in Town of Greece v. Galloway. For years the Courts have been steadily moving the nation towards a neutral and pluralistic realm in regards to religion in the public sphere. However, the Court took an interesting turn in deciding that prayers during town hall meetings did not necessarily equate to a constitutional violation.
The basis for this decision is founded upon the precedence laid by Marsh v. Chambers. In that case from 1983, the Supreme determined that a prayer before legislative sessions was constitutional because of the historical significance prayer has in our nation. Justice Kennedy in the Town of Greece decision cites to the appointment of chaplain to both houses of the first national Congress after the Constitution and the First Amendment were ratified in 1789. Because those same men who served in the Congress were also the ones who created the Establishment Clause, it takes little deductive skill to determine that the Founding Fathers deemed prayer before a legislative as constitutionally benign.
So what was the big issue here? Constitutional jurisprudence since that time has largely muddied the waters. The case of County of Allegheny v. ACLU in 1989 confused many on what was permissible by stating in its dicta that legislative prayer cannot have the effect of affiliating government any one specific belief system. Justice Kennedy squarely rejects this by stating "the content of the prayer is of no concern to judges" and that insisting on generic non-sectarian prayer would turn government officials and courts into supervisors and censors of religious speech. No doubt, this type of intervention would needlessly entangle the government deeper into religious affairs than now. Thus, Kennedy lays out clearly that "government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any but the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may proscribe religious orthodoxy."
Let us take a moment and let this sink in. Government may not mandate a civic religion. Atheism is not the unbiased standard, it is not neutral. Being offended does not equate to being coerced. And officially the courts will expect people to act like adults when they encounter speech they find disagreeable. This expectation of maturity is something rarely seen in American society today, but is something that I believe could benefit a lot of people. If maturity is expected then maturity will result. What we see in our present culture is the expectation of immaturity, as the result is an immature populace. Maybe this decision will help effectuate a change.
Now, several justices vehemently disagreed with this sentiment. Justice Kagan writes in her dissent that prayer at a town meeting will lead to mandated prayers before criminal trials, voting, and naturalization ceremonies. She reasons that because government cannot regulate a religion's content, that religious content will run rampant and oppress citizens of minority faith systems.
Furthermore, she states that our constitutional "tradition" dictates there should be no endorsement of sectarian language. This "tradition" Kagan cites stems from a case decided a mere 20 years ago in Lee v. Weisman, the Allegheny County case of 1989, and a few personal letters from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to friends that bear no persuasive authority on their official governmental actions. If the Founding Father really felt prayer before legislative sessions were a bad idea, they would not have appointed chaplains for each House of the First Congress.
So, let religious citizens rejoice in the decision. We can pray in the public square and not hide our religious identities in a closet. While many will certainly wish to have prayer expand beyond the legislative "ceremonial" portion, we should be happy with the rights that have been solidified this week.
Editor's Note: Frank A. Roberts, M.B.A. is a J.D. Candidate at Ave Maria School of Law, Class of 2015