So Kennedy sided with the four reactionaries and ruled that the town of Greece, New York did not violate the Constitution by starting its public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month” who was almost always Christian. Why not? Because the prayers are “merely ceremonial.”
Excuse me, prayers delivered by a chaplain from the majority religion (or, in fact, any other religion, but this case is this case) are not “merely ceremonial.” That’s bullshit of the purest kind – calculated, insulting, unreasonable, unabashed.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 5-to-4 decision that divided the court’s more conservative members from its liberal ones, said the prayers were merely ceremonial. They were neither unduly sectarian nor likely to make members of other faiths feel unwelcome.
“Ceremonial prayer,” he wrote, “is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond that authority of government to alter or define.”
Many Americans can go right ahead and do that; all of us can do that if we so decide; it does not follow that the government should do that, nor is it even a good reason for the government to do that. In fact it’s the opposite: since the putative “precepts” are “far beyond that authority of government to alter or define” that authority of government should just stay the fuck out of it.
In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the town’s practices could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share of her government.”
And it’s staggeringly insulting and alienating to ignore that fact.
Justice Kennedy said traditions starting with the first Congress supported the constitutionality of ceremonial prayers at the start of legislative sessions. He added that it would be perilous for courts to decide when those prayers crossed a constitutional line and became impermissibly sectarian.
Oh hey, I have a solution to that problem – DON’T HAVE ANY PRAYERS.
“To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian,” he wrote, “would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.”
So DON’T HAVE ANY PRAYERS.
Town officials had tried, [Kennedy] said, to recruit members of various faiths to offer prayers.
In dissent, Justice Kagan said they had not tried hard enough. “So month in and month out for over a decade,” she wrote, “prayers steeped in only one faith, addressed toward members of the public, commenced meetings to discuss local affairs and distribute government benefits.”
In 1983, in Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court upheld the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of opening its legislative sessions with an invocation from a paid Presbyterian minister, saying that such ceremonies were “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”
Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor, said the case from Greece was different. The prayers at the town board meetings were often explicitly sectarian, they said, and residents were forced to listen to them in order to participate in local government.
“No one can fairly read the prayers from Greece’s town meetings as anything other than explicitly Christian – constantly and exclusively so,” she wrote in her dissent in the case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, No. 12-696.
Moreover, she said, the clergy “put some residents to the unenviable choice of either pretending to pray like the majority or declining to join its communal activity, at the very moment of petitioning their elected leaders.”
It’s theocracy. It’s theocracy-lite, certainly, but it’s still theocracy.