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Langfan: Sectarian Prayers Lead to Explicit Prayers

The First amendment to the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This provides the basis for the idea colloquially known as the “separation of church and state.” However, as many have noted, the membrane upholding this segregation has been rather permeable since its inception. On the one hand, America is predicated upon religious principles. Biblical references crown national monuments, and our currency contains explicit references to belief in G-d. Simultaneously, the writers of the Constitution attempted to extricate religion from policy. The diction of the First Amendment indicates that the framers sought to forge a country that would theoretically be open to members of diverse cultures and faiths. As such, the absence of a formal, state religion was deemed quintessential in order to provide a forum for religious minorities to practice their beliefs freely.

The dichotomy of inherent religious values and a commitment to separate religion from government emerges in ascertaining the legality of sectarian prayers[1] at the commencement of government meetings. These prayers are open to diverse religious groups within the community, but are predominantly led by members of a particular faith. Some have proposed that this practice should be permitted, provided that there is no intent to favor one faith over another.

Defenders of this proposal, which is extremely relevant to the ongoing case of the Town of Greece v Galloway, point to the landmark United States Supreme Court 1983 decision in Marsh v Chambers, which allowed state-funded public prayer in the Nebraska legislature. In Marsh, the Supreme Court relied on the fact that the founding fathers had themselves appointed a paid chaplain to deliver prayers at the First Continental Congress in the immediate days prior to the drafting of the First Amendment. The Court argued that while the text of the First Amendment prohibits any law respecting an establishment of religion, the founders’ actions illustrated that such prayers were not meant to be banned. Chief Justice Burger concluded that an invocation for Divine guidance is not an establishment of religion but “simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”

Nevertheless, two important factors distinguish that decision from the proposed resolve. The historical premise of Marsh can be rejected because all of the founding fathers were Christian. The vague, religiously oriented prayer described by Justice Burger was acceptable because it reflected the basic beliefs of the Convention’s participants. This is not the case today, as our government and assemblies are extremely diverse.

In addition, our resolve is in direct violation of the 1983 stipulation that prayers would only be permitted if the state did not intend to advance or disapprove of a particular religion.  However, the “specific sectarian prayers” of the resolved could easily include references such as those of the prayers at meetings in Greece, which commenced with declarations such as “in the name of the lord and savior Jesus…” There, the traditional vague monotheistic diction such as that of the pledge of allegiance which Justice Burger sanctioned had been expanded to be far more specific to exclude Jews and Muslims (among others), even distinguishing between certain Christian sects! The detailed use of such references at the commencement of a government meeting on government premises represents a tacit endorsement of a particular religion, in violation of the 1983 decision, and against the principles laid out by the 1st amendment. The proposed resolve would be in similar violation.

Perhaps one could argue that any explicit references in such prayers do not represent the prohibited “advancement of a particular religion” because other religions have the potential to be represented. Nevertheless, as can be seen from the town of Athens whose prayers were “exclusively Christian for nine years” despite the non-Christians in attendance, this could easily be subject to abuse.  In fact, in a November 3rd editorial article, The New York Times noted that while in the weeks after the suit was first filed, Jewish and Baha’i (among other) clergy were invited to attend, this trend rapidly reverted back to being exclusively Christian.

Moreover, the proposed resolve violates the second clause of the First Amendment, that Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

The use of such detailed references is undoubtedly bound to make members of other faiths uncomfortable. The use of religious expression by a majority to make a minority feel unwelcome reared its ugly head just two weeks ago, when the New York Times reported that a 20-foot wooden cross had been put up as a Christmas ornament in Bloomingburg, New York next to a housing development which was to be purchased by hasidim, and remained there more than 10 weeks later. Allowing similar or even more explicit references at the commencement of government meetings could discourage people from active participation in government as a result of their religious beliefs, thus clearly impinging on their Constitutional right to exercise those beliefs freely.

In addition, if prayers are deemed permissible at meetings, they could easily be made mandatory for attendees of the meeting, as was the case in Greece. Mandatory participation in a sectarian prayer clearly violates the rights of someone who does not believe in that religion to practice their own beliefs. Perhaps one can argue that mere attendance does not require participation. However, using this reasoning, one could also contend that when the Jews in Europe were forced to listen to their weekly Sabbath homily by the local bishop, this would not be a violation of their ability to worship freely. After all, in most instances they merely had to listen.

Finally, the above proposal appears to contradict itself. It states that sectarian prayers should be allowed, so long as “there is no intent to favor one faith over another.” However, in some cases of traditional religions, any permit for the former will almost certainly violate the latter. For example, the very mention of two words, Jesus as christos, the Greek word for anointed or messiah, is pregnant with extremely offensive implications for Jews in particular. It simultaneously identifies Judaism as a rejected religion and tolls Augustinian views of the Jew as eternal witness, subject to damnation for having rejected the savior, as immortalized in the imagery of Ecclesia and Synagoga decorating prominent cathedrals such as Notre Dame in Paris, to this very day.

[1] Sectarian prayers are those which include references to a particular faith