My fellow Americans: Is it really that hard to separate church from state?
I admit that for an atheist like me, the challenge of keeping my religious convictions to myself in public is no challenge at all. I have no religious convictions in the first place, and thus no church from which to part ways when involving myself in the affairs of state.
I understand that for the super-majority of my countrymen for whom God and/or religion play a significant role, this is not such an easy task. I understand that one’s sincerely-held articles of faith cannot simply be checked at the door upon leaving one’s house—not any more than can my own view that the existence of God is neither real nor necessary in leading a virtuous life.
And yet I nonetheless wonder why America’s believers are so very insistent upon foisting their godliness upon us nonbelievers—we, who would rather be left to practice our devil worship in peace. Is it really too much of an imposition to keep one’s religion within one’s own heart without introducing it into the public square?
The reason I ask, you see, is because of this week’s Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, in which the court ruled, 5-4, that a town board could begin its public sessions with a prayer without violating the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In the upstate New York town of Greece, legislative meetings have indeed kicked off with a formal prayer, led by some chaplain or other, since 1999. The town says it welcomes religious adherents of all faiths (and atheists) to deliver these invocations. In practice, however, they have been overwhelmingly Christian.
Consequently, two residents of Greece—Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, who is an atheist—issued a formal complaint, which was dismissed by the U.S. District Court in 2010, but reversed in 2012 by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled that Greece’s tradition violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. This past Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court found precisely the opposite, and that is where we now stand.
The Establishment Clause to which we refer reads simply, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Thomas Jefferson famously elaborated on this concept in a letter in 1802, writing of a “wall of separation between Church and State,” justified by the fact that, in his view, “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God.”
In this context, one cannot help but wonder how the Greece case is not a textbook example of religion intruding where it plainly does not belong.
The high court’s majority view, as articulated by Justice Anthony Kennedy, is that the prayers at Greece’s board meetings serve a purely ceremonial role—they are “meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage,” as Kennedy put it—and, as such, cannot reasonably be seen as an endorsement of any particular religion or, indeed, any particular doctrine therein. No one is being coerced into accepting the chaplains’ remarks as gospel, so to speak, and (as previously noted) no member of a minority faith is excluded from participating.
I am prepared to accept all these premises as true, but I would nonetheless argue that it ultimately doesn’t matter.
To wit: The fact that a chaplain’s prayer at the start of a government session does not actively seek to convert its audience does not negate the fact that it is a plainly religious act being performed in a government building, on government time, with the full endorsement of the government.
If it really is just a symbolic gesture to “lend gravity to the occasion,” why not substitute it with a piece of prose equal in significance but without the problematic sectarian bent? Say, the Preamble to the Constitution or the Pledge of Allegiance (albeit without the meddlesome “under God”)? Why does this invocation need to have religious tones, when our country’s founding documents so strenuously caution against it?
It is worth recalling that in 1777 when Thomas Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—a document that would serve as the template for the First Amendment—it was in explicit opposition to an initiative by Patrick Henry for the government to financially support all churches, rather than none at all.
Henry lost this argument in Virginia, yet his scheme sounds an awful lot like what the good folks of Greece, New York—and, thanks to the Supreme Court, any locality in America—have just won for themselves. Namely, the notion that so long as all faiths are accorded equal moral weight and consideration (if only in theory), the principle of removing religion from government need not be strictly enforced.
It might sound like a sensible idea, but it sure ain’t in the Constitution.