Sometimes the damage from a bad court decision takes a while to make itself clear. Not so with last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a town’s practice of beginning council meetings with prayers that are overwhelmingly Christian. Conservative political and legal groups called it a win for religious freedom, but it only took a few days to see just how much unnecessary and divisive conflict the Court’s decision could generate in communities across America.
Late last week the mayor of the New Jersey town of Carteret cited the Supreme Court ruling to justify cancelling the use of the borough hall for a Saturday naturalization ceremony. He was upset that the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to allow the ceremony to begin with prayer. The INS says its rules are meant to ensure that naturalization ceremonies are "conducted in a meaningful manner which is welcoming and inclusive and excludes political, commercial and religious statements." But Mayor Daniel Reiman said the INS could "host its godless ceremony someplace else." (It was held in Newark.)
What a sad object lesson for those aspiring American citizens and their friends and families. Who knows how many different faiths were represented among them? It shouldn’t matter, because one of the most precious benefits of being an American is that your rights and standing as a citizen do not depend on your holding any particular set of religious beliefs.
But don’t tell that to Al Bedrosian, a member of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. Last week after the Supreme Court ruling, Bedrosian declared that prayers to open board meetings should be given only by Christians. It is shameful that Bedrosian holds public office in Virginia, home of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the birthplace of the First Amendment. Bedrosian argued publicly several years ago that Christians should “rid ourselves of this notion of freedom of religion in America.” He said Christians “are being fed lies that a Christian nation needs to be open to other religions” and called it one of the “greatest moments in US Senate history” when a group of Christians disrupted a Hindu religious leader who was giving an opening prayer.
Both Reiman and Bedrosian are misinterpreting the Court’s decision. But these episodes bring even greater clarity to a reality to which the conservative majority on the Supreme Court demonstrated “blindness” – in the words of dissenting Justice Elena Kagan. That is the exclusionary and divisive reality – as opposed to the theory – of government bodies opening their meetings with sectarian prayer.
The case decided by the Supreme Court came concerned the upstate New York town of Greece. For years, the town council has been inviting local clergy to open its meetings. Those clergy have been overwhelmingly Christian, and their prayers were sometimes highly sectarian, invoking “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” or “the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” These were not, as dissenting Justice Elena Kagan noted, ceremonial invocations like the “God save the United States and this honorable Court,” which begins Supreme Court sessions.
The town’s prayer policy was challenged by two citizens (one Jew and one atheist) who felt coerced by the invitations to Christian prayer, and who felt as if they were being made outsiders in their own town based on their religious beliefs. They argued that the practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which has been interpreted as preventing the government from favoring religion in general or any religion in particular.
Some people, particularly those in the religious majority, have a hard time seeing why such prayer is a big deal. As Paul Waldman writes for the Washington Post, “the ruling is about the privilege of the majority, the privilege to define your own beliefs, traditions, and practices as simply the water in which we all swim. If you’re in that majority, you tend to be shocked when anyone even questions whether those practices ought to be imposed on everyone and sponsored by the state.”
But imagine, as Kagan did, a Muslim who has come before the city council seeking a zoning variance to build an addition on her home. When she is asked to join in prayer celebrating the divinity of Jesus, she has the option of not participating, or leaving the room. Either option identifies her as somehow different from her neighbors and from the councilmembers who will decide the fate of her request. A federal appeals court had ruled that the town’s practice was unconstitutional because, even if town officials had no bad intent, the consequence of the nearly uninterrupted parade of Christian prayers was to signal that Christianity was favored, and to make unequal citizens of people of other faiths or no faith.
Unfortunately, five Supreme Court justices disagreed, saying even an overwhelmingly Christian and sectarian prayer practice is OK unless there is a pattern of prayers denigrating other faiths or proselytizing or unless there is evidence that people are being legally coerced or punished for not participating. The Court has given a green light to “Christian Nation” advocates like Al Bedrosian to demand that their city council or county commission allow their official meetings to be regularly opened with explicitly Christian prayers. Some Religious Right leaders have said that’s exactly what they’re going to do.
Right now, practices vary. Some government bodies don’t bother with prayer; others invite clergy to open meetings, with guidelines that prayers be respectful or nonsectarian. But even that nod toward pluralism is at risk: Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice said this ruling means government bodies can no longer make a distinction between nonsectarian prayer and “praying in Jesus’ name” and he told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “that will have an impact on a number of cases.”
It’s worth noting that some progressive Christians agree that “nonsectarian prayer” is a kind of oxymoron. But, says Washington Monthly blogger Ed Kilgore, that is not a reason to push for sectarian prayer; it is instead a reason to do away with legislative prayer altogether. He writes that the effort to push more prayer in official settings is “offensive to those who pray as much as to those who don’t.” The pro-church-state-separation Baptist Joint Committee had filed a brief in the case stating that “prayer is an expression of voluntary religious devotion, not the business of government.”
That brings us to a crucial distinction between what is constitutional and what is wise, particularly in a country that is increasingly diverse, with a growing number of people who claim no religious affiliation. As noted in People For the American Way Foundation’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics, “Some things that are legally permissible may still be damaging to religious tolerance and civic discourse, and should be discouraged.”
The Supreme Court did not rule that legislative bodies have to begin their meetings with prayer; it ruled that the Constitution allows them to. In spite of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s portrayal of legislative prayer as a unifying force, it seems likely that an aggressive push for more sectarian prayer to open official meetings will be anything but unifying. Elected officials should think twice before going down that road.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he prays that the Court is showing a way toward “a right kind of free marketplace of faith expression in American life.” But Moore is wrong: we already have a free marketplace of faith expression in America. The First Amendment has fostered a vibrant, flourishing, peaceful religious pluralism that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Christian media has a massive presence on television, radio, and online. But what too many “Christian Nation” advocates want, and what the Court is opening the door to, is a system in which a religious majority can more easily use the institutions of government to promote its religious beliefs and label others as outsiders.
And that is not the American Way.
WASHINGTON – In response to the Supreme Court’s decision today in Shelby County v. Holder, People For the American Way Foundation President Michael Keegan released the following statement:
“As the Supreme Court swerves further to the right, our constitutional liberties continue to take a beating. Today, the Supreme Court seriously undermined an important piece of the premier civil rights legislation of the past century – legislation that civil rights heroes gave their lives for. This decision sends a chilling message to all those Americans who continue to face politically-motivated hurdles on their way to the ballot box.
“In his confirmation hearings, Chief Justice John Roberts pledged to behave like an umpire—just calling balls and strikes, and staying out of the game. Today that umpire upended decades of civil rights law. His decision substitutes his own opinions for the findings of America’s elected representatives in Congress, who found numerous cases of ongoing, racially-based political gerrymandering and trickery. Moreover, it does so in an area in which the Constitution specifically and intentionally gives Congress wide discretion. Reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act received near unanimous support in both houses of Congress just a few years ago, and was signed into law by President Bush. Today’s decision is a blatantly inappropriate exercise in legislating from the bench. Conservatives who have spent decades decrying judicial activism should take note.
“In two separate cases yesterday, Justice Ginsburg called on Congress to fix the damage done by decisions handed down by our nation’s highest court. That need is even greater today. Congress should move quickly to enact a coverage formula under Section 4 to protect voters whose right to participate in our democracy was badly undermined today. The American people deserve no less.”
WASHINGTON – In response to the Supreme Court decisions in Vance v. Ball State University, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center v. Nassar, and Mutual Pharmaceutical Co. v. Bartlett, People For the American Way Foundation President Michael B. Keegan released the following statement:
“In three closely divided decisions today, the five far-right Justices again opted to side with powerful corporations rather than protect the rights of individual workers and consumers. These decisions are just the latest example of this Supreme Court majority’s ideological agenda that undercuts the rights of everyday Americans.
“In her Vance dissent, Justice Ginsburg hit the nail on the head when she described instances of real-life work harassment and noted that ‘as anyone with work experience would immediately grasp,’ the reality faced by workers is very different from the assumptions of the Court’s right-wing majority. But as the Supreme Court’s conservative bloc has proven again today, rulings from this court follow the dictates of power—not law—and are entirely disconnected from the realities of most Americans. The highest court in the land has made clear that it’s committed to laying a blueprint for corporations to have free rein to trample the rights of individuals.”
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement today in connection with the denial of a cert petition for a case from Texas. She agreed with the decision not to hear the appeal, but she recognized the need to also release a statement condemning the offensive, racially charged remarks of a federal prosecutor during a drug-focused trial. During the cross-examination of a man who testified that he was not part of and did not know about friends’ plan to buy illegal drugs, the prosecutor asked:
“You've got African-Americans, you've got Hispanics, you've got a bag full of money. Does that tell you – a light bulb doesn't go off in your head and say, This is a drug deal?”
Sotomayor called the prosecutor’s comment “pernicious in its attempt to substitute racial stereotype for evidence, and racial prejudice for reason.” She went on:
“It is deeply disappointing to see a representative of the United States resort to this base tactic more than a decade into the 21st century. Such conduct diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines respect for the rule of law. We expect the Government to seek justice, not to fan the flames of fear and prejudice.”
Sotomayor’s powerful response highlights the critical importance of diversity in our court system. As Justice Sotomayor noted in 2001, “our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions.” During her confirmation, People For the American Way Foundation documented the far right’s vitriolic reactions to Sotomayor’s insightful discussion of the ways in which her life experiences as a Latina woman inform her view of the law.
But today’s statement is one example of what that looks like in practice. It highlights what it looks like when a woman of color on our nation’s highest court has the power to call out blatant racism in the judicial system.
People For the American Way President Michael Keegan released the following statement today in response to the Supreme Court’s announcement this afternoon that it will hear Windsor v. U.S., a case challenging Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case challenging California’s Proposition 8:
“As we saw with last month’s state ballot measures affirming marriage equality, more and more Americans are coming to understand that laws preventing same-sex couples from getting married do real harm to our families, friends, and neighbors. There’s also absolutely no legitimate reason for the federal government to recognize some legally married couples while refusing to recognize others. Laws like Proposition 8 and DOMA go against the central American ideal of equal justice under the law,” said Keegan. “We applauded the earlier court decisions that found both Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional. There’s no question that the Constitution’s guarantee of equal justice under law applies to all people—gay or straight. The cases the court agreed to hear today are a landmark opportunity for our country to move towards making marriage equality the law of the land once and for all.”
“It is time to for the Supreme Court to weigh in on the side of equality and send a powerful message: our country will no longer selectively discriminate against loving, committed couples.”