The Supreme Court Just Kicked God Back Into America

Does America have a religion?  Many religious conservatives insist that the United States has always been a Christian country.  Yet some religious folks complain that the Supreme Court has “kicked God out of public schools” and public meetings.  In a ruling today, a slim majority on the US Supreme Court ruled that public meetings CAN be opened with a prayer, even if those prayers tend to represent mostly Christianity.

ILYBYGTH readers may remember this case from my upstate New York neighborhood.  The town of Greece held prayers before its meetings.  Though the town tried to open the prayers to a wide group of religions, complainants argued that the prayers tended to cluster around Christianity.  As SCOTUS had ruled in a 1983 ruling, Marsh v. Chambers, public meetings could constitutionally open with a prayer, as long as those prayers did not favor any one religion over another.

In the case of Greece v. Galloway, today’s ruling allows towns to continue with public prayers, even if those prayers tip toward Christianity.  And even if those prayers use explicitly Christian language.  As Adam Liptak noted in the New York Times, Justice Kennedy’s majority decision insisted that public prayers could even invoke sectarian ideas, such as the specific invocation of a sacrificial Jesus.  As Liptak summarized Kennedy’s decision, “it would be perilous for courts to decide when those prayers crossed a constitutional line and became impermissibly sectarian.”

According to Lyle Denniston on the SCOTUS blog, today’s ruling hinged on a distinction between “coercion” and “endorsement” as a rule of thumb in public-meeting prayers.  Such prayers, the majority held, are not constitutional if they imply coercion.  If non-believers are made to feel less welcome, for instance, coercion might be at play.  “Endorsement” is a lower hurdle.  Dissenting justices felt that any prayer in which government looked to be endorsing any religion must be unconstitutional.  Today’s majority ruling implies that “coercion” might become the new standard in judging questions of public religiosity.

As I’ve argued in the Journal of Religious History about the landmark school-prayer rulings Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington v. Schempp (1963), the status of public prayer has long served a crucial symbolic role in evangelical understandings of their role in American culture.  There is a tension at the heart of evangelicalism.  Believers in this tradition can consider themselves both the definition of true Americanism and a beleaguered minority in a sinful or secular land.  When the Supreme Court rules for or against public prayer, evangelicals tend to respond forcefully.

Will conservative religious folks celebrate this case as the time that the Supreme Court kicked God back INTO American public life?  The Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based group that defended the town’s prayer practice, calls today’s ruling an “Answered Prayer.”  As they put it, today’s ruling

Preserves the public prayer tradition that began with our founding.

Protects the freedom of community volunteers to pray according to their faith in a public setting, without censorship

Defends the prayer giver’s freedom of speech over an “offended” person’s demands for censorship

Writing in the evangelical WORLD magazine, Emily Belz took a more circumspect tone.  “The Greece case,” Belz opined,

doesn’t have huge immediate implications but puts the high court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence on friendlier ground toward religion in the public square.

In the pages of the evangelical flagship publication Christianity Today, Ted Olsen insisted that SCOTUS got it right.  But not because this decision endorses the notion of the US as a Christian nation.  Rather, Olsen argued that sectarian prayers—whether to Jesus or to Apollo—represent the real faiths of real Americans.  “For Christians,” Olsen wrote,

such invocations let us bear witness to our own submission, to our gratefulness for God’s provision on a community level, and to our need for his wisdom and guidance. We needn’t “proselytize or disparage” in these prayers, just as we don’t do so in our prayers before meals, or with our families before bed. And we need not protest pagan prayers in our city council meetings any more than we protest them at our pagan neighbor’s apartment. Instead, we should see their prayers as a triumph of religious freedom (and as reminders to compassionately share the gospel with them).

Does it turn public meetings into Christian-fests if they are opened with prayers that specify the centrality of “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross?”  Or is it okay to have prayers, as long as everyone is invited to have a chance to lead them?  The Supreme Court says yes.