In case you weren't driving through Rochester, NY, last week or otherwise missed it, I figured you might want to know that the Obama administration filed an brief with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to strike down an appeals court's limitations on participatory prayer at municipal meetings. JURIST has a nice summary with links to all the relevant documentation, but here's my summary.
Greece is a 96,000 person suburb of Rochester. Since 1999, the town has opened town meetings with a participatory prayer. They town didn't have any sort of written policy on how this was to happen. Basically, the town compiled a list of religious leaders who were willing to deliver the prayer (the list only contained Christians), and someone from the town would work hir way down the list, inviting people to lead upcoming council sessions in prayer.
In 2008, a pair of town residents sued, claiming that this amounted to an establishment of religion.
Here's a necessary bit of background:
One of the last big courts case to take up this issue happened when member of the Nebraska legislature sued the state over its practice of legislative prayer. That went to SCOTUS in 1983. (For those of you folks who weren't born or were coked out on Zubaz during the 80s, it wasn't one of the United States' finer decades constitutional law-wise.) SCOTUS ruled that legislative prayer was such an established practice, that it didn't really constitute a establishment of religion. Or something. Because Jesus. (Those sounds you hear are justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan rolling their eyes, BTW.)
So yeah, the residents took the town to the district court, which promptly threw out the case because precedence, Jesus, Swatch watches, wev.
The appeals court had a slightly different take.
The court explicitly upheld municipalities' right to open meeting with prayers, but found that it needs to be clear to "reasonable" people that governments weren't endorsing particular religious viewpoints. Invocations have to be open to anyone who wanted to lead them. The people leading the invocation can't proselytize. However, towns can't censor speakers either, which means governments had better "think carefully" before enacting prayer practices:
What we do hold is that a legislative prayer practice that, however well-intentioned, conveys to a reasonable objective observer under the totality of the circumstances an official affiliation with a particular religion violates the clear command of the Establishment Clause. Where the overwhelming predominance of prayers offered are associated, often in an explicitly sectarian way, with a particular creed, and where the town takes no steps to avoid the identification, but rather conveys the impression that town officials themselves identify with the sectarian prayers and that residents in attendance are expected to participate in them, a reasonable objective observer would perceive such an affiliation.Obviously, the town appealed this decision. SCOTUS agreed to hear the case, which is where the Obama administration comes in.
People with the best of intentions may be tempted, in the course of giving a legislative prayer, to convey their views of religious truth, and thereby run the risk of making others feel like outsiders. Even if all prayer-givers could resist this temptation, municipalities with the best of motives may still have trouble preventing the appearance of religious affiliation. Ours is a society splintered, and joined, by a wide a constellation of religious beliefs and non-beliefs. Amidst these many viewpoints, even a single circumstance may appear to suggest an affiliation. To the extent that the state cannot make demands regarding the content of legislative prayers, moreover, municipalities have few means to forestall the prayer-giver who cannot resist the urge to proselytize. These difficulties may well prompt municipalities to pause and think carefully before adopting legislative prayer,
but they are not grounds on which to preclude its practice.
The Solicitor General submitted a brief supporting the town (and by extension, opposing the appeals court's decision). Again, remember that the courts and defendants agree that opening town meetings with prayer is a-okay. The dispute is over what constitutes an establishment of religion.
I see two main arguments in the brief:
1) PRECEDENCE BITCHEZ! There's a long history of prayer prior to US legislative sessions, which is important to defend because Jesus.
2) Intent is magic! Sure, there were a lot of Christians leading the prayers in Greece, but that wasn't intentional. These things happen.
Now, I totally get that this is the same administration that invited Rick Warren to give the invocation at the president's first inauguration, but it didn't even need to file a brief at all.
There's no need for public prayer prior to legislative sessions, let alone prayer that endorses a particular religious viewpoint. The only purpose I see is to make it clear to non-Christians that they're not welcome. Whenever I hear so much as a generic "Dear God, help us not blow this!" I get the impression that I'm supposed to feel like the filthy non-believer fucking things up for everyone. I'm sure this isn't the intent that all advocates of legislative prayer, but you know, what the fuck are the other justifications?
Tradition? There are some pretty shitty traditions out there.
Comfort? For whom?
Conveying a sense of levity? For whom?
Don't get me wrong. I'll totally support your right to pray for divine support for your upcoming deliberations on zoning ordinances, just let me take part in the legislative process without having to sit through your public proclamations on my behalf.
Of course, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit supports certain aspects of legislative prayer. That's not enough for the Obama administration, which is supposedly represents the major political party that's least invested in enforcing its religious doctrine on the rest of us.
This is where we stand in year 2013 of the Christian lord.
[Commenting note: This is not a discussion of whether or not there are good Christians.]