- - Thursday, May 8, 2014


Public prayer is a right of the American people, doubly-protected by free speech and free exercise of religion under our First Amendment.

Sadly, our courts don’t agree. And bureaucrats such as in the Veterans Administration don’t seem to agree, either. They try to regulate it.

The high court’s 5-4 ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway held that town council meetings may include prayers offered by local clergy and need not seek religious balance by soliciting out-of-towners.

But the key swing vote, from Justice Anthony Kennedy, hinges on a precarious hair-splitting rationale. Justice Kennedy agreed with the long-standing tradition for government bodies to open meetings with ceremonies that include prayer, but disagreed previously with the long-standing tradition for schools to open graduation ceremonies in similar fashion.

When the prayers are aimed at elected officials, the justice bows to tradition. As he wrote in the Greece opinion: “The principal audience for these invocations is not, indeed, the public but lawmakers themselves, who may find that a moment of prayer or quiet reflection sets the mind to a higher purpose and thereby eases the task of governing.”

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The plaintiffs argued the prayers “made them feel excluded and disrespected.” Justice Kennedy noted, “Offense, however, does not equate to coercion. Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable”

So the thin-skinned did not prevail. But the majority opinion sounded a warning if town council members displayed approval for the content of a prayer: “The analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the prayer opportunity. No such thing occurred in the town of Greece.”

The opinion made it clear that the courts are still keeping an eagle eye on such practices: “Courts remain free to review the pattern of prayers over time to determine whether they comport with the tradition of solemn, respectful prayer … or whether coercion is a real and substantial likelihood.”

In today’s regulatory climate, even the nation’s veterans must fend off efforts by government bureaucrats to police religious speech — in their own designated cemeteries.

In 2011, the Veterans Administration was placed under a federal court’s consent order to end censorship of religion at its national cemeteries.

The federal court ordered the VA:

To delete several offending sections from its standards which required language at ceremonies to be “inclusive” and “non-derogatory.”

Not to edit, control, or exercise prior restraint on the content of private religious speech and expression by speakers at ceremonies or events at the cemeteries.

Not to condition participation in any such event on the content of religious speech, including prayer.

Not to ban religious speech or words, such as “God” and “Jesus” in condolence cards or similar documents … or oral communications made to veterans’ families.

But today even more controversies continue, with claims that VA is restricting the content of religious speech by its chaplains.

These are only the tip of a bureaucratic iceberg using government regulations to crowd out the First Amendment’s guarantee of free exercise of religion.

Nothing in our Constitution decrees separation of church and state. Peaceful coexistence might be a better model. The presence of government does not dictate the absence of religion. Otherwise, in an America where government constantly grows and seems to be present everywhere, that growth would crowd out religion, leaving it no place to go.

Former Congressman Ernest Istook’s daily radio program can be heard online, noon to 3 p.m. Eastern time, at KZLSam.com. Sign up for his free email newsletter at Eepurl.com/JPojD.

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