On Taking Sides, And Town Meeting Prayers

Our founders had their different faiths, and with those faiths as guides
They determined that our government should not be taking sides

That couplet, excerpted from this earlier verse, is the crux of the matter in Greece, NY. In the most recent must-read piece, SCOTUSblog, and author Carl Esbeck, dissects the matter of the case (I’ll only briefly quote here–the whole thing is well worth the time):

Can government knowingly take sides in a matter of religious belief or practice? More to the point, can government actively support a practice that is explicitly religious, such as prayer? This is the issue in Town of Greece v. Galloway as it ought to be framed.

Quoting with approval from Marsh v. Chambers, the Town’s main brief states that the purpose of legislative prayer is “[t]o invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws.” The practice not only calls upon a God or gods, but to a Divinity interested and active in human affairs. Why else invoke guidance? This act of prayer is thus consistent with some religions but not others. Deists, for example, believe in an impersonal God. A policy of legislative prayer is doubtlessly taking a side, and no phony pluralism dressed up as “nonsectarian” prayer – a vague theism not actually practiced by anyone – can cover up that fact.

The ubiquitous internet commenters who point to Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists love to claim that the first amendment is not intended to protect government from religion, but to limit government meddling and thus protect religion from government. Esbeck’s piece painstakingly explains why the protection of government from church is protection of church from government.

The divisiveness within the body politic that is a proper concern starts when government takes sides in favor of an explicitly religious practice. Political struggle will likely ensue to seize control of the machinery of government. The purpose for which factions seek control is that the one in power decides the question of continued favoritism of the religious practice. The solution, however, is not to suppress the political struggle which is protected free speech. The solution is to fix the cause of the divisiveness, namely for the courts to start enforcing the taking-sides rule.

Political divisiveness is thus not itself a violation of the Establishment Clause. But it’s a warning sign that the taking-sides rule has gone neglected. Of course, divisiveness within the larger civil society will continue. That’s just pluralism. What will subside is the struggle to seize the levers of power with the aim of controlling whether government continues to take sides in favor of a religious practice.

Mind you, so long as the majority is winning, won’t they be fine with that? What’s to persuade the Christian majority in Greece that the invocation isn’t a good thing despite the entanglement?

In Greece, N.Y., religion prays at the suffrage of the Town Board. The Board, in turn, sought to invoke God’s guidance. But that’s not what the Board got. It instead got an invocation open to all willing locals, including Wiccans and atheists, who, because the Board could not be censorious prayer police, were permitted to say (pray?) whatever they wanted. How did things go so far astray? Presumably because the Board was following advice of legal counsel to “do prayer” federal judges would uphold. In the end, religion was corrupted. That was preventable by a government attentive to Establishment Clause dos and don’ts.

Once you let one in, you let them all in, and you run the risk (as happened recently in Arizona) of an improper and inadequate prayer by the “wrong” people, which you then have to make up for with additional invocations. Of course, then, any other religion must have the same right to make up for your prayer with one of their own, and so on, and so on… And it could not be more clear that these invocations are absolutely not for the benefit of the town, but for the purposes of the churches themselves.

Ultimately religion does not exist to sustain the political order. It’s not a program for municipal improvement or to bless those who take up civic duties. When government uses religion as a tool to achieve its political goals, the danger to religion is that it becomes a courtier in the halls of State.


  1. Pliny the in Between says

    I would argue that the First Amendment to the US Constitution does address the issue of government refraining from interfering with religion. The reason for this was that the original articles had already established the converse. No religious oaths or pledges of any kind are or were required for holders of office. Had the founders intended for there to be any religious litmus tests to be applied for public office holders they would have put it in the Constitution as part of the requirements for office. That they didn’t tell us all we need to know. The US Constitution has always been a secular document. That was one of the things that made it so unique.

  2. Cuttlefish says

    I would hope so. Otherwise I am going to declare myself a god, and demand invocations that involve swearing loudly and colorfully, where the sincerity of one’s devotion is displayed in decibels and profanity. No quiet, murmured blessings for me! No, bullhorns and public address systems should be turned to 11, and screamed into, to demonstrate the fervor of true belief! Toddlers’ first words should shock their grandparents, to show true obeisance to their Cuttlefish god! Shopping malls and town squares should be a cacophony of raw-throated faithful, each trying to outdo the last. No city hall meeting, no session of congress, no high school football game or grade school reading of announcements, can commence until half a dozen believers have screamed themselves hoarse, shockingly and rudely, in my name.

    I think I may have just discovered the inverse of the “if I didn’t believe in God, I’d be murdering people” gambit.

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