Public “prayer” was supported by High Court Ruling on Monday, May 5, 2014. The Supreme Court voted in a 5-4 ruling that public piety does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Ceremonial prayers have been practiced in this country from the lowest level of government to the highest level of government, and dates back to the first session of Continental Congress in 1774. It seems that as long as a particular religion is not endorsed, then “the practice of prayer is constitutional.” That was the primary reasoning for the Court’s support. The majority of the Court stood firm that the Constitution is not violated by prayers.
Another important point clarified from the Court’s stance was that religious coercion under the First Amendment was entirely different from one’s discomfort with religious expression. The Court’s confirmation on this point addressed the fact that when prayer takes place at the beginning of a public meeting, it is primarily ceremonial in nature. This directs the focus to the seriousness of the meeting as well as tradition, validating that it does have permissible ceremonial credence. The prayer is actually addressed to the council or lawmakers for guidance, not toward the audience. The Court did state that the offenses of the audience were not a direct violation of the First Amendment. In other words, coercion does not equate to “feeling offended.” The judges in the majority affirmed that Christian content was not objectionable; however, the four dissenting judges did express their distaste. Also, the majority of judges explicitly made it clear, that Christian prayer was not to be marginalized, nor should those prayers be tossed aside as if a relic of the past.
Surprisingly, the four dissenting judges Stephen Breyer; Ruth Ginsburg; Elena Kagan; and Sonia Sotomayor came into agreement that meetings in a public setting should not move toward a religion-free zone. This was a victory, considering that cleansing the public square of religion, has been the indicated goal to most of the challenges regarding religious expression. Basically, on that note, all nine justices agreed!
The swing vote that broke the division of the ideological lines came from Justice Anthony Kennedy. The Honorable Kennedy’s argument was to not enable the government greater involvement than is allowed by law, emphasizing that prayers should not be nonsectarian. Again, prayer content does not equate to coercion; therefore, government officials are not to be censors to scrub references to Jesus Christ from their prayers. Instead, Kennedy suggested recognizing religious leaders and institutions, while not excluding or coercing non believers. One of Kennedy’s strongest arguments was that the foundation of all others liberties is religious liberty. Another consistent theme that this justice continued to weave throughout his defense for religious freedom was that Americans need to maintain self-control, civility, decency, respect, and more simply put, to just grow up and act mature.
As strongly as Kagan was attempting to make her case that the prayers were specifically directed toward the citizens, Kennedy was declaring the opposite as he continued to emphasize that the prayer was a ceremonial recognition and for the benefit of the legislators, not the citizens. Justice Kennedy’s four conservative colleagues are Justice Samuel Alito, Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas.
David Cortman, senior counsel with The Alliance Defending Freedom group, welcomed the High Court ruling on behalf of the conservative legal group, and applauded the court for affirming the freedom to pray in America. Cortmann did make a comment that it is not for the court to silence people, nor to separate what they believe from what they say. Admitting a contentious issue, he let it be known that he was thrilled and that all defender’s of religious freedom should be encouraged.
This Land of Opportunity will now offer more sectarian “prayer opportunities,” and more opportunities to express worship with honor and respect. Living in a free country is cause for giving thanks.
Society dramatizes “constitutional interpretation;” yet, tradition and history speak to prove that it still means something. Agreeing to disagree promotes the tolerance of diversity, which does protect freedom. For decades the High Court has begun its session with a marshal that invokes a statement which concludes with these words: God save the United States and this honorable court. Today the law spoke, “one nation under God,” affirming that Americans have the liberty to pray. Public “prayer” remains supported by the High Court and the Constitution of the United States of America.
Opinion by Jill Boyer-Adriance
The Bellingham Herald