Don Robinson: Prayers in public assemblies

Last modified: Thursday, May 22, 2014

ASHFIELD — The recent Supreme Court decision regarding prayer at public assemblies reveals the state of American civil religion at the beginning of the 21st century.

In 1865, in his famous second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln interpreted the Civil War in distinctly religious language, using rhetoric that drew on the King James Version of the Old and New Testaments. A century and a half later, the nine justices of the Supreme Court agreed that officials must follow strict guidelines, lest their practice of inviting clergymen to offer an invocation at town meetings be found unconstitutional.

By a 5-4 majority along strict partisan lines (five justices appointed by Republicans outvoting four appointed by Democrats), the court decided that the practice in Greece, N.Y., of inviting a local clergyman to deliver an invocation was not unconstitutional. As long as clergy of various denominations were chosen, no establishment of religion could be inferred.

The court did not set itself and other courts up as monitors of the language of particular prayers. To do so, they implied, would have come close to asking the government, through its courts, to establish the bounds of legitimate religion, and that would violate the First Amendment.

What comes through emphatically in the Greece case is that the First Amendment, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, does not prohibit prayer in public assemblies. On this point, all nine justices agreed. Where they disagreed was in assessing the facts specific to the practice followed in this small town.

Here Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissenting opinion is most useful. He would have affirmed the lower court’s decision that the practice in Greece violated the ban on establishments. But he would not ban all prayer at public assemblies. He faulted officials in Greece for having made no sustained effort to invite non-Christian persons (Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, or atheists) to offer invocations. He would also expect officials to offer guidance about “the nature of the occasion and the audience” and remind everyone of the importance of being respectful of differences in faith among those attending.

It is not the government’s place, Breyer wrote, “to re-write, to parse, or to critique the language of particular prayers,” nor to comb all faith-specific references from them. The annals of Congress are full of examples of distinctively sectarian presentations that were permissible.

As a model for municipalities, Breyer cited the guidelines given to guest chaplains by the U.S. House of Representatives. Invocations are to establish a sense of common purpose and mutual respect before the rough and tumble of actual governing begins. House officials remind chaplains that the body is comprised of members of different faith traditions, that their invocations should not exceed 150 words and that they must be free of references to their own political and policy preferences and to sectarian controversies.

Much is said, when justices are appointed, about whether a nominee displays a “judicial temperament.” What we saw in these opinions — one for the court, two concurrences, and two dissents — was a willingness to be downright nasty.

Justice Elena Kagan taunted the majority opinion, written by Anthony Kennedy, for having “headspinningly” insisted that “the First Amendment is not a majority rule.” Justice Samuel Alito fired back that Kagan’s hypotheticals, used to illustrate where the majority’s logic would take them, were “niggling.” That one sent me to my dictionary; it was not meant as a compliment.

A court’s opinions are deliberate, written expressions. If they wound, we can assume they were meant to. Here was an opportunity to model respectful discourse. It was lost.

Houston is offering a better example of how to deliberate over sensitive subjects. Its City Council is considering a local equal rights ordinance. Its principal sponsors are members of the LGBT community; the most ardent opposition comes from leaders of religious congregations. The council has devoted many, many hours to hearings on the topic. Legislators on both sides have used all the tactics at their command: delays, tabling, referral back to committee. Yet the discourse at the hearings has been respectful, even polite.

Composing prayers for a religiously diverse country is not simple. Recent Pew polls show that, of adult Americans, about half are self-described Protestants, one-quarter Roman Catholics and the rest scattered (2.4 percent agnostics, 1.7 percent each Mormons and Jews, 1.6 percent atheists, 0.7 percent each Jehovah’s Witnesses and Buddhists, 0.6 percent each Muslim and Orthodox Christians). It is perhaps worth noting that, of the nine members of the current Supreme Court, five are Roman Catholics and four Jewish.

Don Robinson writes on the fourth Thursday of the month. He can be emailed at


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