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Since the Supreme Court Upheld Legislative Prayer, Is the Separation of Church and State Over?

(Image: Hands folded in prayer via Shutterstock)

Stories about the push to end any sort of barrier between the government and religion have been peppering the press recently, but now the situation has just become even more dire. In a split 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision, the highest judicial body has stated that public, governmental support of Judeo-Christian prayer is just fine, setting a precedent that could have serious repercussions on future cases.

The ruling comes from Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case debating whether a prayer before each legislative session constitutes a violation of the Establishment Clause, which says that the government cannot promote a given religion. The case was brought about when two residents of a town in Greece, New York, challenged the local city government who not only opened each session with a distinctly and specifically Christian prayer, but pressured those in attendance to pray as well. “The two women contended that the prayers in Greece were unconstitutional because they pressured those in attendance to participate,” reports USA Today. ”They noted that unlike federal and state government sessions, town board meetings are frequented by residents who must appear for everything from business permits to zoning changes.”

The conservative wing of the Supreme Court — aided by Justice Anthony Kennedy — voted in favor of keeping public prayer in place, saying that even though the prayers supported one specific religious view and those who attended were forced to listen and encouraged to join in, not allowing prayer would be a violation of freedom of speech. In other words, if the government is inviting prayer, it can’t prohibit it later on just because everyone is praying the same way with the same religious viewpoint. The liberal side of the court said it was little more than public coercion of those who didn’t have the same views. “No one can fairly read the prayers from Greece’s town meetings as anything other than explicitly Christian – constantly and exclusively so,” said Justice Elena Kagan in her dissent. “The prayers betray no understanding that the American community is today, as it long has been, a rich mosaic of religious faiths.”

Sadly, it’s not surprising that the religious members of the Court have used their own personal beliefs to justify their ruling in favor of the city of Greece. After all, one member even actively debates that Satan is a real person and engaged in daily battles on this earth. Also not surprising is how delighted religious right advocacy organizations are by the decision, which they view as the first step to returning the country from the grips of impending atheism.

“Religious freedom is one of our most cherished freedoms and today’s Supreme Court decision lifts up the best in our country,” said Concerned Women for America’s Penny Nance. ”For years we have seen a push to establish atheism as the official religion of our land, when nothing of the sort is required by the First Amendment. Those who object to these practices do not seek to exercise their religious liberty; they merely feel hostile towards other people’s religious practices and seek to silence them. They seek to silence those with whom they disagree.”

“This is a sound decision that recognizes the significance of our nation’s heritage and tradition,” agreed ACLJ’s Jay Sekulow.

Less happy about the ruling was American’s United for the Separation of Church and State. But the group, were the ones to litigate the case, were able to see some positive aspects in the ruling as well, such as the fact that Kennedy’s majority report did say that prayer that denigrated other religions or sought to convert people would not be viewed as so innocuous. “So, the high court is not willing to say what constitutes a ‘non-sectarian’ prayer – but it is willing to at least entertain the idea that offensive and derogatory prayers can be a problem?” notes AU’s blog. ”I suspect we haven’t seen the last of this issue.”

What this ruling has shown us, for certain, is how a court body rules when several members are not only religious, but see no issues with using their religious beliefs to support their rulings, rather than depend explicitly on the constitution as they are supposed to be doing. Currently six of the nine justices are Catholic and of those all but one voted in the majority (Justice Sonia Sotomayor, an Obama appointee, did not). As I have written before, it doesn’t take many steps to move to a theocracy using elections, the legislative system and the courts, and, by looking at this ruling, it’s clear that we may already be on the verge.

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