By Christopher B. Daly
In its latest ruling on the role of religion in public life, the U.S. Supreme Court got it wrong (again). The court issued a ruling this week written by the narrow majority of five justices who often vote together as a bloc that seems dedicated to keeping things just the way they are. The opinion was written by Justice Kennedy, joined in whole or in part by justices Roberts, Alito, Scalia and Thomas — an enduring coalition of Republican-nominated originalists, textualists, conservatives, traditionalists. It’s also relevant in this connection that they are also all Catholics.
In their ruling in Greece v Galloway, the majority held that it was constitutional for a small town in upstate New York to open all its town board meetings with a prayer. Reading all the majority opinions, I find the following rationales for this wrong holding:
1. An appeal to tradition. Basically, the five conservatives believe that the practice is okay because “we have always done things this way.” On those grounds, Americans would still maintain slavery, jail homosexuals, criminalize birth control, prohibit the sale of alcohol, and deny women the right to vote.
2. A popularity contest. The five conservatives engage in a bit of sociology and observe that most folks in Greece, N.Y., are Christians, so it does not surprise or dismay them that when the town solicits local clergymen to offer the public prayer, the response comes every time from Christian clergy. That’s exactly why their ruling is so wrong and dangerous: it perpetuates the domination of the majority over the minority. In so doing, the conservatives give force of constitutional approval to the routine violation of the conscience of any person in Greece, N.Y., who is not a Christian. In order to conduct their public business, such people must bow to the coercion of their mostly Christian neighbors or risk small-town opprobrium.
3. Those prayers are just for officials, not the public. The conservatives assert (with no evidence) that the prayers at the start of the public meetings are for the benefit of the town officials and are not aimed at the members of the general public in attendance. If so, then why subject non-believers to this public ritual? The officials should move their pre-game prayers into the locker room.
4. It could be worse. At least, that’s Thomas’s view. In his concurrence, Thomas states his view that the Constitution imposes a ban on an official religion only at the national level. He cites the 10th Amendment for his view that the states — some of which had established religions at the time of the nation’s founding — retained their rights to establish religions (and presumably, allow those theocratic states to impose taxes on religious dissenters to support the religion preferred by the majority, so if Thomas, a Catholic, settled in Utah, he might have to support the LDS religion, which his pope would not approve). Thomas reads the First Amendment literally and emphasizes that when it says “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion. . .” that means Congress alone among the nation’s legislatures is restrained from doing so. While he’s at it, Thomas also waves off the 14th Amendment and tells American citizens that it doesn’t mean what they think it does.
So, there you have it. Five robed men have decided that every government meeting in the country may commence with a generically Christian prayer. What’s wrong with this?
In my view, the majority position shows a lack of understanding of what it means to live in a diverse society. The founders themselves recognized their differences and addressed a question that is fundamental to American society: how can people who are different live together in harmony?
How can the Jew and the Muslim support a common school system? How can the Catholic and the Protestant agree on eligibility for public office? How can the atheist, the Buddhist, and the druid all agree on which holidays to observe officially?How can the Baptist, the Mormon, and the agnostic all serve together in units of the armed forces? Can anyone use the power of government to favor one religion over another (or religion over non-religion)? If I can use government power to impose an outward show of loyalty by someone who does not believe as I do, am I not violating that person’s conscience? (It’s easy to see that a Catholic in colonial Massachusetts might object to supporting the Congregational Church, and it’s not that hard to see how an atheist with business to conduct at the Greece, N.Y., town meeting might feel coerced into listening without objection while a Christian clergyman opens the public’s business by asserting “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.”)
For the five justices who made up the majority in this case, consider this thought experiment:
A robed man wakes up in a place that is new to him. He begins to observe his new neighbors. He is told that if he wants to remain unharmed in their midst, he must attend a meeting of the people. The meeting begins with a ritual that the people have observed for generations. They believe in the transforming power of the blood of a dove. So, an unrobed man begins the public meeting by cutting the head off a dove and swinging the bleeding corpse over the heads of the gathering on a long string attached to the bird’s feet. He swings the bird in a clockwise fashion so that all the people are sprinkled by the bird’s blood. (A few dissenters grumble privately that the man should be swinging the bird counter-clockwise, but they hold their tongues, because they know that at the next meeting, there will be a counterclockwise ceremony.) The robed stranger objects to this gruesome ritual and tries to shield himself from the bloody spattering. His new neighbors are horrified by this rejection of the ancient ways of their forbears and decide that whatever the robed man wants , he is not going to get it until he submits to the tradition of the majority.
So, Justices Kennedy, Scalia, Alito, Roberts and Thomas, I ask: what’s the problem in this scenario?
[Extra credit: here’s an introduction to the long history of this issue.]