Prayer traditions in government require updating
Our country was founded on the idea of separating church and state. This should be taken seriously at all levels of government to ensure that citizens are able to engage in public discourse without feeling unwelcome or uncomfortable.
Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway, two residents of Greece, New York, filed a lawsuit in 2008 to challenge the town’s eight-year tradition of opening town meetings with heavily Christian prayer. The suit was brought under the Establishment Clause in the Constitution.
“I don’t think you should have to endure religious indoctrination in order to participate in your own town government,” Stephens, an atheist, told NBC.
A district court ruled that it was within Greece’s rights to continue holding their Christian prayer sessions, but the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that decision and the case has worked its way to the Supreme Court’s docket for November.
The lawsuit states the “town board’s alignment with Christianity through the board’s persistent presentation of Christian prayers sends the message to non-Christians that they are unwelcome at Board meetings and that the Board does not represent non-Christians’ concerns.”
The Supreme Court ruled 30 years ago in Marsh v. Chambers that prayer that does not “proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief,” is permissible before government meetings.
There is, however, a difference between the prayer in Greece v. Galloway and Marsh v. Chambers.
Greece had changed their ways by asking four non-Christians to begin a meeting with an invocation prayer when the lawsuit surfaced, but once the district court ruled that it was within Greece’s rights to continue holding their original prayer sessions, the town went right back to their exclusively Christian prayers. This is a serious violation of the Establishment Clause that forbids the government from endorsing one religion over another.
In the Marsh v. Chambers majority opinion, Chief Justice Warren Burger said, “The opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country,” which has led to the interpretation that Christian prayer is allowable simply because it’s the way things have always been.
John Auberger, Greece’s Town Supervisor, supports this viewpoint and believes that the Supreme Court will rule in his favor because “we have a rich tradition, back to our founding fathers, of opening legislative meetings with a prayer.”
However, tradition should not neccesarily be law.
An important aspect of the Constitution is our ability to adapt to the changing times. The country has made great, progressive strides in the past because we’re not afraid to abandon old fashioned traditions. Women, non-landowners and people of color with 18 years of age have the right to vote, for example. If we had stuck to tradition, our country’s decisions would all still be made by elderly white, property owning men.
According to a 2012 Gallup Poll, 22.7 percent of Americans do not identify with Christianity. In 1948, when Gallup began tracking religious identification, only 9 percent of the country didn’t identify with Christianity. The times are changing, and if over a fifth of the population doesn’t agree with that set of beliefs, then maybe it’s time to stop forcing it upon them.
Government traditions should be flexible and not the reason for allowing prayer that is exclusively one religious sect before legislative meetings.
Elizabeth Eaton is a pre-journalism freshmen. Follow her @dailywildcat.