Public prayers in a pluralistic world

Written by Peter Smith on .

creche2Coincidentally or not, the question of whether public prayers offered at municipal boards, overwhelmingly reflecting the majority religion in town, received the endorsement of five of the six Supreme Court justices whose religion, Christianity (specifically, Catholic), is the majority. Three adherents of a minority religion, Judaism, dissented. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, also Catholic, was the only Christian to dissent.

Justice Elena Kagan, in her dissent, put it this way: How would Christians feel if a majority Muslim or Jewish community monopolized the prayers given in public: 

'The not-so-implicit message of the majority’s opinion—“What’s the big deal, anyway?”—is mistaken. The content of Greece’s prayers is a big deal, to Christians and non-Christians alike. A person’s response to the doctrine, language, and imagery contained in those invocations reveals a core aspect of identity—who that person is and how she faces the world.

'... Suppose, for example, that government officials in a predominantly Jewish community asked a rabbi to begin all public functions with a chanting of the Sh’ma and V’ahavta. (“Hear O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is One. . . . Bind [these words] as a sign upon your hand; let them be a symbol before your eyes; inscribe them on thedoorposts of your house, and on your gates.”) Or assume officials in a mostly Muslim town requested a muezzin to commence such functions, over and over again, with a recitation of the Adhan. (“God is greatest, God is greatest. I bear witness that there is no deity but God. I bear witness that Muhammed is the Messenger of God.”) In any instance, the question would be why such government sponsored prayer of a single religion goes beyond the constitutional pale.'

In my story today, I wrote how Justice Anthony Kennedy repeatedly drew on a Pittsburgh case in shaping his majority opinion. As long as a municipality isn't discriminating against minority viewpoints, or the prayer doesn't proselytize or denigrate others, he wrote, it's OK. 

"Prayer that reflects beliefs specific to only some creeds can still serve to solemnize the occasion, so long as the practice over time is not exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief," Justice Kennedy wrote.


One can only wonder, given his repeated citations of his own dissent when the high court banned a creche at the Allegheny County Courthouse a quarter century ago, if Justice Kennedy is all but inviting a test case to overthrow that precedent. 



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