In Greece v Galloway, Even Kagan Just Doesn’t Get It

Managing Director Amanda Knief Weighs In

After reading both the US Supreme Court’s majority opinion and the dissent in the Town of Greece v. Galloway on Monday about prayers before city council meetings, I was faced with an irrevocable truth–not one of the justices gets it.

Is “tradition” really a good reason to support a bad idea? The justices sure think so; it was used no less than 38 times in their decision as a reason for perpetuating prayer during government meetings. One shudders to think what other “traditions” might still be left in place from the 1700s if Justice Kagan and the rest of the Court were allowed to decide such questions today.

Our Founders condoned and legislated a great many good–and bad–things, but leaders in this country have often used “tradition” as a cloaking mechanism for their continuance rather than examine how such things affect citizens today. Perhaps it is time that we use shared values and compassion as methods of determining whether any relic is worth keeping.

Justice Kagan (and the 2nd Circuit in its ruling) declares that the solution to the problems in the town of Greece is secular pluralism–making sure that everyone gets a voice in the prayers that occur in the town meetings by taking turns and tasking the city with making sure it is more inclusive in who says the prayers.

We have seen how well that goes with some Christians. On May 22, 2013, Arizona state representative Juan Mendez offered a secular invocation to his colleagues; the next day another state legislator, Rep. Steve Smith, offered two Christian prayers that he said were needed to make up for the Rep. Mendez’ lack of prayer. He also told reporters that if Rep. Mendez didn’t want to offer an actual prayer that Rep. Mendez should have just skipped saying anything altogether.

How does a round robin of various religious prayers and secular invocations at city council meetings fix the problem of making a single meeting welcoming to all citizens? Justice Kagan in her dissent talks about the Muslim woman who attends the city meeting to get a zoning variance or to discuss dangerous traffic and she must decide whether to participate in the Christian prayer or out herself as a non-Christian.

How does the pressure to conform at this meeting improve because the town council might have a non-Christian prayer or invocation at a small number of its meetings? It does not change the quandary of this woman at this moment. It does not change the stigma of not conforming when a religious leader turns to the citizens–not the government officials–and asks them to participate.

Neither the majority nor the dissenting justices fully account for the discrimination that occurs on the local level, person-to-person. The idea that giving religious minorities and non-theists the opportunity to speak erases the stain of exclusion is either naive or gross indifference. Those of us who live in the real world know that discrimination is live and well, and for many faking religious belief becomes a dilemma between compromising one’s values and obtaining government services. In some parts of the United States, it may be necessary in order to get or keep a job, and as a compassionate and reasonable people, why add to that burden?

The solution is simple: Government meetings must be devoid of prayer or religious overtone. If those who are religious feel it is necessary, let them pray in private and before the meeting begins.

Amanda Knief, Managing Director, American Atheists

Amanda Knief is a lawyer and expert in Constitutional law. She is the author of the 2013 book “The Citizen Lobbyist: A How-to Manual for Making Your Voice Heard in Government” from by Pitchstone Publishing and available in the www.atheists.org webstore.

  • Ed Buckner

    Amanda Knief speaks for me. Well said–brava!

  • X-Christian

    Thanks Amanda.
    America needs to protect the separation of church and state.
    What can we do?

  • freethinker1

    just saw j. silverman on ronan farrow daily announcing “Atheist TV”. what a great interview and idea…. the 700 club will soon be the 350 club then 150 then gone 🙂

    • Franklin Bacon

      Yes, Dave is great at what he does.

  • Bruce

    There are many “traditions” in America that I am glad we have abandoned. For example, the Supreme Court should join me in being glad that we no longer keep the tradition that no Catholics or Jews are allowed to serve on the Supreme Court. Of course, we still appear to have a tradition that only certain Abrahamic monotheists need apply. America is not yet as modern as the orator of the late 1800s, Colonel Robert Green Ingersoll.

  • Robert Ray

    I had a similar thing happen after my invocation in Oak Harbor. In my invocation I suggested that the council use their own reason and empathy in making decisions. The next meeting one of the council member asked directly for guidance in making decisions directly from Jesus. I honestly saw this as an insult to my invocation.

    • Robert Lame

      Yes, it’s insulting for someone to not agree with you .. how dare they!

  • joe

    I posted the same sentiment in a number of places after the decision. the solution is not “equal prayer” but “no prayer” (at least in government settings). though I thought I read yesterday that AA was pushing for alliances with “minority” religions to “diversify” the prayer content, I guess as a way to chink away at a totally Christian monolith of prayer.

  • disqus_aYQvtVgaQX

    Clearly stated.

  • Aaron Knight

    It terrifies me that The Supremes lack such obvious common sense of right and wrong as well as the design of our founding fathers who clearly believed in a separation of church and state. This country was largely founded by people escaping religious oppression. Something many conservative Christians like to ignore and deny.

    • Don’t be terrified

      Wow, that’s a serious dose of revisionist history. The “religious oppression” that people were escaping was someone telling them how to worship and believe. By today’s standards, both the “oppressors” and the “oppressed” would make so-called conservative Christians look like new-age hippies. The pilgrims were far more conservative than any modern-day denomination.

  • Luis

    These are the last attempts of the religious to keep control in the government. This is going to end up in the courts again. All it takes is one to not allow a nonsectarian prayer or invocation to screw it up for the religious. They bit off more than they can chew.

  • TommyNIK

    So…..tradition and religious majoritarianism trumps the first amendment according to the SCOTUS.

  • Truly, religion poisons everything.

  • allibyrd

    Well-said, Amanda! Here’s another excellent blog post from American Freethought blogger and podcaster, John C. Snider, that gives a refutation of every ridiculous rationalization in SCOTUS’s opinion:

    http://www.americanfreethought.com/wordpress/2014/05/08/scotus-is-wrong-on-greece-v-galloway/

  • Susan Bovee

    The Supreme Court has said in no fewer than twenty decisions that “tradition” is not a reason to continue supporting an unconstitutional practice. Oh, except, apparently, when it is … .

  • Dan

    Everyone should go to the town meeting and when everyone else says amen, instead declare Hail Satan! Then we’ll see if it a free speech issue or not.

  • razajac

    I think the effect of public prayer before government meetings has the effect of dampening open communication. A person’s spiritual story is a deeply personal story. The general purpose of public prayer flies in the face of this reality, and only serves the purpose of foisting upon religion a bogus role of “uniting” people via religious affiliation. The simple fact is that, when they actually overcome their religiously inculcated reluctance to engage in open and honest communication about their true feelings, people find that no two people are as united as the “prayers” of these pre-governance pastoral bleaters would have us think.

    In other words, these kinds of prayers only serve to make people think they’re united, before the hard realities of governance/resource-allocation reveal that reverent head-bowing comes nowhere close to uniting us. Prayer before governance is a prayer that no one needs anything, that there is no real need for governance, that perhaps we should just rejoice in our “united” status quo and home and forget all this “getting-together-to-discuss-‘urgent’-business” tomfoolery.

    Decent governance rejects this obfuscation and gets on with it.

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  • Rolo1124

    Should get a member from as many religions as possible to attend every meeting so they can say a prayer. When it takes 2 hours of prayer before they can get down to business they might rethink thier decision.

  • Gerald Brienza

    We have the first black POTUS and soon will have the first woman POTUS. However, the real progress will be when we have the first Atheist POTUS!

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