Our nation is on a collision course in its jurisprudence on religious expression. A case scheduled for oral arguments before the Supreme Court on November 6 might bring some much-needed clarity.
On the one hand, there is a host of time-honored and beloved customs that have their origins in religious observance.
In the same week in 1791 that Congress adopted the First Amendment to the Constitution, it also voted to appoint and pay a chaplain for each Chamber. Invocations are given at Presidential inaugurations. When FDR announced to the country that we had invaded Normandy, he closed his radio speech with a prayer.
Public ceremonies and meetings often open with prayer, and dead heroes are remembered by public crosses in their honor. When designing their great seals centuries ago, towns and counties sometimes included a cross. Our national motto is “In God We Trust”. Things like this have been found constitutional because they do not favor any one religion over another.
But now we have a powerful new zeitgeist of militant secularism.
This militant secularism regards old customs as dangerous, oppressive, and coercive. Why? Because a single observer might be offended by them. And if one person might possibly, conceivably, be offended, then the Constitution must be being violated.
At least, that’s what the line of attack seems to boil down to.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) is the organization at the forefront of the militant secularist zeitgeist. It seeks to eradicate customs and public expressions of religious sentiment wherever it finds a local citizen willing to put his or her name on a lawsuit.
AU was founded in 1947 as “Protestants and other Americans United for Separation of Church and State.” Today AU can be counted on to send dire warnings or file lawsuits if it learns of a crèche on the courthouse lawn, or a student-led prayer at a football game or graduation.
After all, think of the people in the audience, just wanting to see someone walk across the stage, and being compelled – coerced against their will — by a governmental agency no less! — to hear an invisible power invoked. The horror of it!
Which brings us to Greece, New York, population 96,095.
In Greece, the town clerk writes to every house of worship in the city and invites them to volunteer to lead a prayer at meetings of the Town Council. Some sign up, and they are called upon in the order in which they responded. Most of the volunteer clergy happen to be Christian (the town is 90% Christian), but the Council has had Jewish, Ba’hai and Wiccan prayers.
But atheist Susan Galloway, who frequently attends Town Council meetings to show her support for public-access cable TV, took offense. And AU saw the opportunity for a new line of argument in its ongoing campaign against religious traditions. So it brought suit against Greece.
Never mind that Galloway could have come a few minutes later in order to avoid being offended. “Citizens should have the right to participate in local government without being pressured to take part in sectarian prayers,” AU’s legal director Ayesha Khan says. So politely sitting still while thinking your own thoughts is now a form of “being pressured”?
When a federal district court ruled in favor of the Town Council, AU appealed it to the Second Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, which ruled that Greece’s custom violates the Establishment Clause and suggested that Greece should censor the prayers or import non-Christians to deliver them. (Huh? Censorship would be more in accord with the First Amendment?)
At this point, it certainly would have been easier for the Town Council to give up the fight, and probably also give up the prayers. But instead, it appealed to the Supreme Court, with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), whose Senior Counsel David Cortman believes that “Americans today should be as free as the Founders were to pray.”
So keep an eye on this one. This case gives the high court a chance to change the way courts look at these perennial arguments… and maybe even inject some objectivity back into the national conversation on religious freedom.
Depending on how the court rules, the town of Greece, New York, might go down in history as a great defender of freedom, just like its namesake.