The consequences of the Greece v. Galloway prayer case

The US Supreme Court, in a very confused ruling, decided in the case Greece v Galloway that ceremonial opening prayers were acceptable at the beginning of government sessions provided the prayers were not sectarian in their delivery or in the selection of prayer givers. Even some of the so-called liberal members of the court like Elena Kagan, while dissenting from the verdict approving the Greece prayers, said that “such a forum need not become a religion-free zone.”

Of course, the people pushing for these prayers are determinedly sectarian. They believe in the Christian god and only Christian prayers would be acceptable to them so it was only a matter of time before that contradiction would manifest itself. And so it came to pass.

Last week, when Wiccan priestess Deborah Maynard delivered the opening prayer for the Iowa House of representatives the leader of the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans (CUUPS) in Cedar Rapids became just the third Pagan priestess to offer such a prayer before a state body. Some members of the Iowa house boycotted her prayer by arriving late, and Rep. Rob Taylor (R-West Des Moines) actually turned his back to Maynard claiming it was a form of peaceful protest in response to a practice he perceived as spiritually evil.

Rep. Taylor’s response to last week’s prayer shows why inclusion is not a simple solution. When minority religions give opening prayers, there have been retaliations from the majority in the form of political protests and—in some cases—vandalism and death threats. So the promise of rotating in prayers by minority faiths is less viable in practice than on paper. At worst, the language of pluralism in these contexts becomes a fig leaf that allows the religious majority to circumvent the Establishment Clause.

At stake in the response to Maynard’s prayer is a theoretical problem about what religious pluralism is and ought to be. How can you include faiths that do not value inclusion? And if you exclude these faiths, how can you claim to be inclusive? This is the paradox of pluralism.

At least in Canada they have the right idea. Its Supreme Court ruled unanimously last Wednesday that all such prayers at city council meetings were unconstitutional. (You can read the opinion here.) The Globe and Mail editorialized about the verdict.

Our government institutions have been evolving toward a complete neutrality on religion for the past 30 years, thanks to the Charter of Rights. There is no explicit separation of church and state in our Constitution, but the fundamental freedoms protected by the Charter have meant that governments have had to respect all religions and their expression, and show no preference for one in particular. The final, inevitable stage in this evolution – an equal respect for atheism – arrived this week with the SCC’s decision in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay.

The decision strips away all remaining arguments for allowing municipal, provincial and federal legislators to show a preference for religious belief over atheism. Any defence that might leap to mind – the respect of tradition, the mention of the “supremacy of God” in the Charter’s preamble, the suspicion that banning prayer to satisfy atheists is an expression of support for atheism – is addressed and dismissed by the court.

We are at a moment in Canada’s evolution, the court says, where the state can no longer “use its powers in such a way as to promote the participation of certain believers or non-believers in public life to the detriment of others.”

So much for the Lord’s Prayer. Government must strive for “true neutrality” in matters of religion, the court ruled. The invocation of a god, no matter how blandly non-denominational, is an explicit endorsement of theism, which is at odds with a society where atheism has equal protection.

Preserving tradition is not a valid reason to continue showing a preference for religion over atheism, the court continued, because any government doing so ultimately “breaches its duty of neutrality.” Nor is there an argument to make that banning prayer is inherently atheistic. “There is a distinction between unbelief and true neutrality,” the court said, and provided a simple example: The opposite of opening a meeting with a prayer to God is not the absence of a prayer but, rather, opening a meeting with a declaration that we are only guided by reason, and that there is no such thing as God. [My emphasis-MS]

It seems clear that the Canadian Supreme Court has a much clearer understanding of the proper role of religion in civic life than our own. Their policy is not only the most sensible and logical one, it is the only way to avoid interminable hair-splitting about what kinds of prayers and prayer-givers are acceptable.


  1. says

    prayers were not sectarian

    How can a prayer not be sectarian?

    “O god, who art so big and unknown and unknowable,
    if you exist at all, please bless this meeting,
    if blessing is something that you do. And lead us not
    into temptation, if that’s something you can help us out
    with. O god, who art not much of a god at all, apparently,
    please love us and understand us in our loneliness and

  2. Pierce R. Butler says

    Galloway herself, in a recent talk to the Freedom From Religion Foundation, noted that the town of Greece has done all it can to revert to the status quo ante, particularly by requiring that all who lead city council prayers represent a federally certified 501(c)(3) organization (thus limiting the pool of speakers to a small set of leaders of established and institutionalized religions).

  3. alanuk says

    And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

    But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

  4. lanir says

    @alanuk #3: That part of the Bible is carefully selected out like the more ornery parts of the early laws that would effectively outlaw modern life.

    Personally I really wish the “religious freedom” crowd would take their own argument seriously, that religion is a personal choice between a person and the divine they choose to worship. If that were all they wanted we’d all be happy. Unfortunately somehow they go from a “personal choice” logic to “except you, you don’t get to make choices because I get to make them for you” to “I do what I want when I want because god”.

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