Town Meeting Prayers: Rigged in Favor of Jesus?

1in_god_we_trustThe tiny town of Greece, New York is in the news these days because the citizens of Greece like to pray when they start their monthly town meetings. Prayer in one’s daily life rarely makes headlines, but in this case, Greece’s prayers have made it all the way to the top of the American judicial system and are about to be heard by the Supreme Court.

At issue initially was whether offering nearly 100% Christian prayers was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment which prohibits the establishment of a formal religion in the United States. The case was decided at first in favor of the town, because it was able to display a good faith effort toward ecumenism by inviting several non-Christian preachers to give their “moment of prayer.” But on appeal, it was decided that the town practice of starting meetings with Christian prayers did, in fact, compromise the First Amendment, despite those invitations. Now, the Supreme Court is about to hear arguments as to whether that appeals court erred in the determination that the prayers violated the First Amendment.

Shake this all down and the questions for the Court to determine are: 1) is it a violation of the First Amendment to open town council meetings in Greece, NY with a prayer; and, 2) what if that prayer is specifically a Christian prayer? Does that present an effort to establish a practice of following Jesus as the official religion of Greece?

Like it or not, prayers are a part of the legislative landscape in this country and have been since the founders declared that we were endowed by our Creator with unalienable rights. Even though the Declaration of Independence does not stand as the law of the land, its thematic sensibility of a nation operating in concert with God, paved the way for swearing-in ceremonies with bibles, “In God We Trust” on American currency and at least one state-issued license plate (Indiana), and the inclusion of the words “one nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

However, there is a more practical basis for the complaint about Greece’s town prayers. In an argument made by Americans United, “The official prayer practice puts religious minorities in a difficult spot: they can either betray their conscience by participating in a prayer that conflicts with their religious views or single themselves out by declining to take part.” It is easy enough to see how uncomfortable these meetings could be if the prayer-giver starting the meeting referred to Jesus and his resurrection or “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross,” as is quoted in the complaint, rather than something less specific like, “May God help us meet the needs of our constituents.”

One could argue that saying prayers in any context is covered by the balance of the First Amendment as free speech. My mother used to say that I could disagree with what you had to say, but not with your right to say it. If these prayers offend you, you can vote the town meeting leaders out of office at your next opportunity and elect different town leaders who don’t feel the need for a prayer. In fact, in Greece, prior to 1999, their meetings began with a non-sectarian “Moment of Silence.”

In truth, we aren’t a godless society. We have a chaplain in the U.S. Senate. When being sworn in to give testimony under oath, one swears “So help me, God,” so I don’t think removing all references to God or to our “Creator” is likely to happen any time soon. I do not believe prayers in Greece town meetings are establishing any more than an uncomfortable few moments for a minority of Greece residents and certainly it is not establishing religious practice. The concept of religion was established in this country over a century before the American Revolution and it was, for all intents and purposes, a Christian one. So, in effect, Greece’s monthly prayer givers are preaching to the choir. They are already on the same page of the hymnbook. This town is already saved.

However, American Christians have a significant role to play in this small town drama. We have to make sure the very same rights and privileges afforded our 18th century ancestors are firmly in place for non-Christians, too. Just as I would hope the owner of the Washington Redskins would change the name of the team to something less offensive, I hope the elected leaders in Greece will drop this moment of prayer and go back to the non-sectarian moment of silence.  Or just get on with the business at hand.

Greece should be allowed their monthly moment, but I pray they use it wisely.

For further reading –
A Look at the Key Players in Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Supreme Court Case About Government Prayer
U.S. to argue in Greece prayer case
Meet the Prayerful Rock Star of the Government Shutdown

Anne Born is a New York-based writer who has been writing stories and poetry since childhood.  While her children were enrolled in New York City public schools in the late 1990s, she edited and published The Backpack Press, and the CSDIII News, a monthly newsletter covering all public schools on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  She blogs on Open Salon and Red Room and her writing focuses on family and life in a big city after growing up in a small one.  She is also a photographer who specializes in photos of churches, cemeteries, and the Way of St. James in Spain.  Most of her writing is done on the bus. You can follow Anne on Twitter at @nilesite.

  • Martha Teitelbaum

    Interesting discussion of this topic.
    I have a fairly strong reaction to the idea of a prayer that opens a public meeting of elected officials. I’m against it. As a Jew growing up in a mainly Christian community, I was subjected to prayer and Christmas carols in my public school (some of this occurring after the 1962 Supreme Court decision!). I remember in elementary school when we did a school play on the birth of Jesus. I was an angel and I was supposed to kneel. When I refused, I got yelled at by the other kids (but I literally stood my ground). I hated the singing of Christmas carols. They made me uncomfortable and I was made even more uncomfortable because my school would always make a token outreach to the few Jewish kids by singing “I Have a Little Dreidel,” one of the silliest songs around and stupid-sounding in comparison to the beauty of the carols.
    The truth is there is no way to do a prayer that will be comfortable for everyone. Atheists are of course unhappy with them. And even religious people are often only comfortable with a prayer that represents their beliefs. One advocate (a Jewish professor, actually) of prayer in school and public life said at a panel discussion that no one would object to a nice general statement like Lord Bless us. I have terrible problems with that since it’s so damn sexist!
    Finally, about that Pledge of Allegiance: even though written by a Baptist minister, it had no mention of god until it was changed in 1954. (as for the Declaration of Independence, “creator” can mean just about anything. It’s a pretty ecumenical view of god).

    • Anne Born

      Thank you for these comments, Martha. I think this one example is more innocent than deliberately evangelizing or “establishing” in its intent and certainly less problematic than if they brought in a Christian preacher knowing the preponderance of meeting attendees were NON-Christian.

      This topic of prayer at public events will always walk a very fine line between open proselytizing and protected free speech. It’s what makes it interesting.

  • Martha Teitelbaum

    Thanks for nice reply. But I think that even if the whole meeting was made up of Christians, it’s wrong to have a prayer at a meeting of elected officials paid for by taxpayers.
    I agree with what you said here: “I hope the elected leaders in Greece will drop this moment of prayer and go back to the non-sectarian moment of silence.”
    A moment of silence is totally reasonable. It can be used to pray, to meditate, or just to figure out what you’re going to cook for dinner.

  • Anne Born

    I think rotating the various and sundry preachers in and out every month is more like 10 minutes of “Religion 101: Let’s Look at Other Faiths” when they should just be clearing their heads to get down to business.

    Bottom line – opening with a prayer is probably not anti-Constitutional, but it’s kind of a bonehead practice when you take a closer look. I can only imagine what this exercise is costing those taxpayers in legal fees.

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