The local religion [Editorial]

The Supreme Court's decision to allow explicitly Christian prayer at the start of local government meetings will have the unfortunate effect of alienating those with minority religious beliefs or no religious faith at all. The 5-4 decision turned largely on the long-standing American tradition of prayer before legislative meetings and on the notion that the practice is not inherently coercive. But Justice Elena Kagan is right in her dissent when she argues that the majority's ruling violates the Constitution's promise that "when each person performs the duties or seeks the benefits of citizenship, she does so not as an adherent to one or another religion, but simply as an American."

The case centers on the practice of the town council in Greece, N.Y., which is near Rochester, to open meetings with a prayer led by a member of the local clergy. The prayer program is open to all faiths, but nearby congregations are nearly all Christian, and the prayers themselves usually invoke Jesus or make reference to Christianity. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said legislative prayer has long been found compatible with the First Amendment's prohibition against state-established religion and that no tradition supports the idea that the prayers must be non-sectarian. To make such a requirement, he wrote, would be to put the courts in the place of "supervisors and censors of religious speech." So long as the prayers serve to lend gravity to the proceedings and not to "denigrate, proselytize or betray an impermissible government purpose," they do not violate the Constitution, he wrote.

What the decision fails to properly consider is the normative effect of public officials invoking (or, in this case, causing to be invoked) specific references to a particular religious tradition as part of their official duties. It cannot help but convey the message that Christianity is the preferred religion and that others are secondary. Those attending the meetings would inherently get the message that those who follow different faiths were being excluded, and conversely that those who want to fully participate in their local government had to adopt Christian beliefs. Justice Kagan found the effect to be particularly worrisome at the local level because, unlike in Congress or state legislatures, local government meetings typically involve ordinary citizens seeking some government benefit or accommodation.

This case has been watched closely in Maryland because of similar litigation related to the Carroll County commissioners' use of prayer to open meetings. U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. had ruled that explicitly Christian prayer by commissioners was unconstitutional, and though the situation was not precisely comparable to the one in Greece, he lifted his injunction against Carroll County soon after the high court's ruling.

In the meantime, though, Carroll's commissioners had voted 3-2 to adopt a new rule mandating only non-sectarian prayers before meetings and that they be led by the commission chairman. Although the rule was only supposed to be in force until the Supreme Court ruled, we urge the commissioners to maintain it anyway. The court may have decided that Christian prayer before a local government meeting is Constitutional, but that doesn't mean it is unobjectionable. Other legislative bodies, including the General Assembly, have long followed a policy of non-sectarian prayer, not because they thought they had to but because it was the right thing to do.

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