In a 5-4 ruling Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld prayer at government meetings. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the prayers offered at a town council meeting in Greece, N.Y., are ceremonial and in keeping with the nation’s traditions.
If prayer is largely “ceremonial” and “traditional,” then it has lost all meaning. One might as well chant “2-4-6-8, who do we appreciate?”
Since 1999, the Greece town council has opened a majority of its meetings with Christian prayers. Two people recently complained about the sectarian nature of the prayers and filed a lawsuit. In response, the town council began inviting members of other faiths to pray. These included a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and the chairman of the local Baha’i congregation. Each faith has a different, even competing, concept of God, which dilutes, at least for Christians, the purpose of praying before council meetings.
This case reinforces what the founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. Having experienced the negative effects on religion from a state church in England, they sought to prevent government from meddling in religion in America. They struck a brilliant balance in the establishment and free exercise clauses. Government would not establish a state church and believers (and nonbelievers) could freely exercise their personal faith (or lack thereof).
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The Greece town council, apparently more interested in seeking approval from the state than from God, was willing to water down its prayers in order to maintain a “tradition” and win Supreme Court approval. Why not just pray “to whom it may concern”?
There is nothing to prevent and much to recommend elected officials praying in private before a meeting. If the intent is to seek God and His direction, that is the proper way to do it, according to no less an authority than Jesus of Nazareth, who said: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
Jesus also rebuked the Pharisees when He said in Matthew 6:5: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.”
While public prayers may be constitutionally acceptable, according to the 5-4 majority, there is a Higher Power that takes a dimmer view of them.