Douglas Cohn: Court ruling allows prayer that may not be your prayer

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WASHINGTON — In another narrowly decided 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to more prayer in public settings. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the conservative majority, sided with local officials in Greece, a town of some 94,000 people in upstate New York. He said the practice of opening town meetings with a prayer does not violate the Establishment clause of the Constitution as long as it is in keeping with past tradition in Congress and state legislatures, does not discriminate against minority faiths that might wish to offer a prayer, and does not “coerce participation with non-adherents.”

The prayer at the center of the controversy is a Christian prayer, as it typically is when these cases come to public attention. Christian conservatives embraced the court ruling as a big win. The religious right traces various societal ills back to the day in 1962 when the Supreme Court ruled prayer in schools unconstitutional. Conservatives have systematically chipped away at the legal barrier erected 40 years ago, and this latest ruling in Greece versus Galloway is a major victory.

It’s not worth getting up on a soap box and lecturing the Christian Right about separation of church and state, and how important that concept was to the Founding Fathers. A better way to point out the dangers inherent in relaxing the ’62 ruling is to explain what happened in Greece, N.Y., and where it might lead. The plaintiffs, Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway, said they repeatedly challenged the town’s practice of opening each town board meeting with a prayer, requesting the prayer be modified and made more inclusive.

In the past, the town council opened meetings with a moment of silence, switching to prayer in 1999. The assumption in this small, mostly homogeneous community is that there would be no pushback, that everyone would be happy with the prayer offered by the presiding officer. But what if the prayer offered up at the meeting was a Scientology prayer? What if the prayer strayed from the mainstream of Christian religion and spoke to Muslims, or Mormons?

Those who are cheering the court’s decision should be careful what they ask for because the latitude granted by the ruling could get out of hand as various advocates make the case for their religion’s prayer. Christians are not monolithic. There aren’t many Southern Baptists who would advocate for a Methodist prayer. At the heart of these cases that make their way through the courts is an assumption that the side favoring more religion in the public sphere has their prayer in mind, not the prayer offered up by a marginalized minority or a sect that Christians are not particularly comfortable with.

Justice Sotomayor wrote the dissent, saying the prayer practices in the town of Greece violate the concept of religious equality, “the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.” That doesn’t mean forums like those held in Greece need to be “religion-free zones,” she wrote, but Greece’s board “did nothing to recognize religious diversity.”

It’s hard to see how the gulf between right and left on the court can be bridged on this and many other issues. Waiting in the wings is the challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. The same group that provided the resources for the defendants in the town prayer case is backing the challenge to the ACA. The Alliance Defending Freedom organization works with a network of conservative groups to restore religion to what they believe is its proper place in the U.S. As long as Christianity is being elevated, they’re happy. In an increasingly diverse America, the court opened a door they should have left closed, and those who opened it may discover that the prayer they want may not be the prayer they hear.