After reading both the US Supreme Court’s majority opinion and the dissent in the Town of Greece v. Galloway on Monday about prayers before city council meetings, I was faced with an irrevocable truth–not one of the justices gets it.
Is “tradition” really a good reason to support a bad idea? The justices sure think so; it was used no less than 38 times in their decision as a reason for perpetuating prayer during government meetings. One shudders to think what other “traditions” might still be left in place from the 1700s if Justice Kagan and the rest of the Court were allowed to decide such questions today.
Our Founders condoned and legislated a great many good–and bad–things, but leaders in this country have often used “tradition” as a cloaking mechanism for their continuance rather than examine how such things affect citizens today. Perhaps it is time that we use shared values and compassion as methods of determining whether any relic is worth keeping.
Justice Kagan (and the 2nd Circuit in its ruling) declares that the solution to the problems in the town of Greece is secular pluralism–making sure that everyone gets a voice in the prayers that occur in the town meetings by taking turns and tasking the city with making sure it is more inclusive in who says the prayers.
We have seen how well that goes with some Christians. On May 22, 2013, Arizona state representative Juan Mendez offered a secular invocation to his colleagues; the next day another state legislator, Rep. Steve Smith, offered two Christian prayers that he said were needed to make up for the Rep. Mendez’ lack of prayer. He also told reporters that if Rep. Mendez didn’t want to offer an actual prayer that Rep. Mendez should have just skipped saying anything altogether.
How does a round robin of various religious prayers and secular invocations at city council meetings fix the problem of making a single meeting welcoming to all citizens? Justice Kagan in her dissent talks about the Muslim woman who attends the city meeting to get a zoning variance or to discuss dangerous traffic and she must decide whether to participate in the Christian prayer or out herself as a non-Christian.
How does the pressure to conform at this meeting improve because the town council might have a non-Christian prayer or invocation at a small number of its meetings? It does not change the quandary of this woman at this moment. It does not change the stigma of not conforming when a religious leader turns to the citizens–not the government officials–and asks them to participate.
Neither the majority nor the dissenting justices fully account for the discrimination that occurs on the local level, person-to-person. The idea that giving religious minorities and non-theists the opportunity to speak erases the stain of exclusion is either naive or gross indifference. Those of us who live in the real world know that discrimination is live and well, and for many faking religious belief becomes a dilemma between compromising one’s values and obtaining government services. In some parts of the United States, it may be necessary in order to get or keep a job, and as a compassionate and reasonable people, why add to that burden?
The solution is simple: Government meetings must be devoid of prayer or religious overtone. If those who are religious feel it is necessary, let them pray in private and before the meeting begins.
Amanda Knief, Managing Director, American Atheists
Amanda Knief is a lawyer and expert in Constitutional law. She is the author of the 2013 book “The Citizen Lobbyist: A How-to Manual for Making Your Voice Heard in Government” from by Pitchstone Publishing and available in the www.atheists.org webstore.