The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 vote on prayer at government meetings confirms religion continues to be the most divisive of issues in culture today.
The high court’s divided ruling this week was a result of a challenge in Greece, N.Y. The city was sued in 2007 for opening town government meetings with a prayer. It was alleged prayer violated the separation of church and state governed by the Constitution, and the suit maintained prayers offered in this particular town were mostly rooted in Christianity.
The majority opinion of the narrow vote found prayer “has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.” The two caveats outlined in the option were that diversity of religious beliefs be sought out by governments and that no requirements of attendees to participate take place.
The dissenting opinion read, “In this country, when citizens go before the government, they do not go as Christians or Muslims or Jews, but just as Americans. That is what it means to be an equal citizen irrespective of religion.”
It’s a relief to learn that government officials can still bow their heads with a prayer to open their meetings without fear of legal action. In most cases, such as in Ocean City, the prayers are innocuous and have more to do with respect for the diversity of opinions present and strength to remain open-minded than any sort of blanket expression to God or a higher being. In Ocean City, the prayer usually comes first followed by the Pledge of Allegiance.
In other cases, such as in Berlin, a specific faith is more clearly represented. Each Berlin Mayor and Council meeting begins with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, which we find appropriate but surely there are others who do not. The good news is nobody is ostracized for not participating in the prayer or even the Pledge of Allegiance at these meetings. It’s their right to not participate and to our knowledge no other religious entity has ever requested the opportunity to lead the prayer.
It was affirming to see the Supreme Court preserved the right of those who do have a belief in a higher being to make a public acknowledgement before getting to government matters, so long as it’s inclusive of all faiths and not forced on anyone. The highest court in the land got this divisive issue right, albeit by the slimmest of possible margins.