The Myth of Neutrality
- By Alliance Defending Freedom
- Posted Nov 1, 2013
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By Brett Harvey
Hostility wears many masks. It hides behind labels that seemingly promote neutrality and diversity while disguising true intentions. On November 6, the U.S. Supreme Court will be asked to recognize and reject hostility to sincere religious expression. In Town of Greece, NY v. Galloway the Court will consider whether the government has an obligation to censor the way people pray when opening a public meeting.
In Town of Greece, the prayer challengers demand that prayer be “nonsectarian,” a sensible sounding label that disguises hostility to faith-specific prayers. The ways for the government to meet such a demand is to either censor prayers, or to exclude those who reference the One to Whom they pray.
The Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of a public prayer in 1992. Justice Anthony Kennedy warned that when the government dictates generic public prayers or bans references to a particular faith (like referencing Jesus) it is constitutionally problematic.
Justice Kennedy explained that allowing the government to mandate “nonsectarian” prayers can disguise religious hostility under the cloak of neutrality As the cloak of neutrality has worn threadbare, Justice Kennedy’s warning against religious hostility was prophetic. His opinion in Lee v. Weisman concerned a prayer given at a public school graduation exercise. But his warning applies equally to cases challenging public invocations given before legislative meetings.
In the last decade, hundreds of counties and municipalities have faced the threat of costly litigation simply for opening public meetings with a prayer. Such traditional openings were practiced by the Continental Congress, the First Congress, and still continue throughout every level of government across the country. A vocal few challenge these traditions because they don’t want to hear the way others choose to pray.
Many of these municipalities and towns have bowed to the pressure to avoid being labeled “intolerant.” Consider this recent headline in the Los Angeles Times: “‘Christ’ ban signals apparent end to Longview council meeting invocation.”
Since the 1950’s, the Longview City Council opened its public meetings with prayer, as Congress has done for 239 years. But fear of a lawsuit from groups like the ACLU led the Mayor of Longview to tell the local ministerial association that it is “not acceptable” for ministers who volunteer to give a Christian prayer that refers to Jesus. It is alarming that city officials decided to exclude ministers simply because their faith teaches them to pray a particular way. To their credit, the ministers of Longview refused to violate their convictions and offer generic prayers.
The Longview debacle demonstrates that demanding a person leave their faith at the door of city hall is indeed a real problem with real consequences.
Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court decided Marsh v. Chambers, and denied an atheist’s attempt to stop the Nebraska Legislature from opening sessions in prayer. The Court noted that the first Congress voted to hire chaplains to open sessions with prayer three days before finalizing the wording of the First Amendment. The Court wisely reasoned that finding legislative prayers unconstitutional would accuse the Founding Fathers of violating the Constitution – even as they were writing it!
After failing to have public prayers banned in Marsh v. Chambers, secularist groups focused their challenge in the last decade on the way people prayed by demanding that the government censor the type of public prayers offered. Unfortunately, some well-intentioned officials began restricting the way people pray in public and demanded “nonsectarian” prayers because they believed that a few in the audience would be more comfortable with a generic prayer. But it was just this sentiment that gave rise to Justice Kennedy’s warning.
One town has sustained the courage to give local citizens the opportunity to voluntarily open public meetings with a prayer. The Town of Greece, NY refused to censor these prayers, prompting a lawsuit lasting more than five years. Although the town succeeded in the trial court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed, deciding that allowing citizens the opportunity to give uncensored prayers resulted in too many Christian prayers. Concerned with this decision, the Supreme Court agreed to review the lower court decisions.
On November 6, the Supreme Court will again hear challenges to the content of public prayer. Alliance Defending Freedom, along with allied attorney, Tom Hungar, from the firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher are pleased to defend the town’s practice that recognizes the liberty of individuals to choose for themselves how to pray. Let’s all pray the Supreme Court gets this one right.
If you support public prayer and think this valuable tradition should continue, sign the Statement of Support for prayer.
To learn more about the case and what’s at stake, visit www.FreeToPray.com.
Author: Alliance Defending Freedom