The professional grievance industry suffered a sharp setback Monday when the Supreme Court ruled that a prayer does not offend the Constitution. In Town of Greece, N.Y., v. Galloway, the fringe busybodies who claim offense at the sight of folded hands or bowed head in public lost an avenue for agitation.
The 5 to 4 majority held that a city council doesn’t establish a state religion, which the First Amendment prohibits, by starting a meeting with a moment of silence or an invocation that reflects the community’s beliefs.
The decision split along the usual conservative-liberal lines, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy delivering the decisive vote in favor of tradition. “As a practice that has long endured,” wrote Justice Kennedy, “legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable court’ at the opening of the court’s sessions.”
Two women sued officials in the town of Greece decrying the invocations as overwhelmingly Christian in nature, presumably leaving out Druids, Wiccans and worshippers of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Town officials once sought to appease the grumbling fringe by inviting a Wiccan priestess, to no avail. (What does a witch pray for? A more comfortable broom to ride?) The gripe was never about inclusiveness, but about eliminating the invocations altogether.
In a separate opinion, Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas rejected the idea that a handful of malcontents should be able to apply “subtle pressure” to ban the prayers outright. Ruling in favor of the easily offended would invite a tyranny of the minority, led by umbrage-taking plaintiffs who speak mostly for themselves in pursuit of their 15 minutes of fame.
The court’s liberals were anxious to jettison 230 years of the nation’s religious heritage. Justice Elena Kagan wrote that the public “should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines” and held out the prospect of the slippery slope to sectarian prayers at trials, polling places and naturalization ceremonies. Religious freedom in America thus hangs by a single vote on the high court.
The ruling was a much-needed rebuke to anti-Christian bigots everywhere and injects a modicum of sanity into the debate. The separation of church and state, though fundamental to the republic, is nowhere found in the Constitution. It was spun from a misreading, by Justice Hugo Black in 1947’s Everson v. Board of Education, of Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut.
Monday’s ruling was welcomed locally by Carroll County, Md., Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier, who had been a target of secularists after opening a March 27 meeting with a prayer in the name of Jesus Christ in open defiance of a federal judge’s ruling two days earlier enjoining sectarian prayers.
The result is heartening, but the narrow margin of the victory is a needed reminder that the preservation of religious liberty is work that never ends.