High court missed the point: Putting religion in its place means embracing all faiths and no faith

High court missed the point: Putting religion in its place means embracing all faiths and no faith

May 7th, 2014 in Opinion Times

The U.S. Supreme Court missed a tremendous opportunity when its majority this week ignored our nation's history as well as the framework our founders wrote into the U.S. Constitution.

It's true enough that sorting out the freedoms of religion and speech is often tricky. But that's the point. And it's exactly the opportunity our highest court missed Monday in ruling that the town of Greece, N.Y., and other local governments can legally start their meetings with prayers from just one religious sect.

What the court missed was the chance to move us toward a fuller understand that both our diversity and our inclusiveness still make us free today, just as these virtues did centuries ago when religious intolerance sparked the American Revolution.

Our early leaders, with clear and burning memories of the religious intolerance that prompted immigrants and refugees to flock to the colonies from the British Isles, Germany and across the globe, created the First Amendment with two components relating to religion.

The so-called "free exercise" clause gives citizens freedom of religious expression and belief, while the "establishment" clause warns that such expression is meant to be private and cannot be endorsed or promoted by the government.

The First Amendment also contains the "free speech" clause, giving us the freedom of private expression on general topics.

In framing the amendments, our founders sought to ensure against religious persecution and intolerance, while at the same time keeping government at arm's length: "Congress shall make no law ... prohibiting the free exercise" of religion or free speech.

In other words, government can't prescribe religious beliefs, but must protect them when spoken under both the free religious speech and free speech clauses.

That language prohibiting religious endorsement or promotion is exactly what the Supreme Court's majority on Monday ignored when five of nine justices chose instead to hide behind decades of American tradition. But those traditions were built when communities were smaller and tended to be more insular.

Now those decades of tradition are sliding up against a more dense America that is more mobile and cosmopolitan. It's somewhat understandable that more than two centuries after the Constitution built a wall separating church and state, we're having trouble being different even while we still stand together under a community's dome of government and, presumably, united good will.

Remember, globally religion is still the single most divisive factor in wars and atrocities.

Banning prayer was never the issue. In fact, a ban would seem similarly flawed. Just as public prayer from primarily one religion, in effect, stands as a government endorsement of that belief, so might a ban seem to be an endorsement of disbelief.

Justice Elena Kagan's persuasive dissent got to the heart of the matter: A town hall meeting in Greece, N.Y. [or here in Hamilton County, Tenn., where a similar lawsuit is smoldering], "need not become a religion-free zone," she wrote. But the practice must meet tradition and the prayers must "seek to include, rather than serve to divide."

She suggested government officials take steps to ensure "that opening prayers are inclusive of different faiths, rather than always identified with a single religion."

What a concept. Prayer to reinforce the reality that citizens of all faiths and no faiths are equal participants in government.

Instead, the high court's majority ruling shirked the chance to both reinforce "freedom for all" and the guarantee of government's religious neutrality.

The court's decision, however, doesn't preclude city councils, county commissions, school boards and other local governmental bodies from taking the higher road.

Our local leaders should -- now more than ever -- make a concerted effort to make moments of public prayer inclusive of all faiths, and yet hospitable to those with no religious faith.

Pull us together, don't hold us apart.