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One Nation, Under Secularism

One of the great innovations of the United States Constitution, alongside adaptations of federalism and popular sovereignty, was a truer definition of liberty than any western nation knew at that time. The newly formed nation offered a haven from the religious conflicts of the Old World, one where everyone was free to practice their own faith without fear of punishment or death. The Constitution also set out to protect the rights of minorities from a “tyranny of the majority”, a phrase used by John Adams in 1788 to explain how even direct democracies could hinder the progression of liberty. Recently, the US Supreme Court, in the landmark Town of Greece v. Galloway, ruled in favor of prayer in town hall meetings, a decision many have criticized as not only inspired by religious bias, but one which disregards the constitutional goal of supporting minority rights and keeping religion out of political life.

The small town of Greece in New York State has had monthly town hall meetings for years. Since 1999, these meetings have been opened with a prayer led by a guest speaker. For the first eight years, every single one of these speakers was a Christian minister. Only after public complaints by the plaintiffs did the town invite a “Jewish layman”, and later even a Wiccan priestess, to speak in the meeting. However, in total non-Christians represented only 4 out of 120 speakers in Greece’s town meetings. Justice Kennedy, in his Opinion of the Court, wrote that while this may be over representing Christians, it would be even more of an infringement on the freedom of religion for the state to pick and choose exactly who spoke and exactly what they were or weren’t allowed to say (a reference to some suggesting the problem is mentions of Jesus in opening prayers). After reading Kennedy’s opinion in its entirety, this is one of the few points I believe he and I agree on. It certainly would be troublesome for the state to dictate a “generic prayer” to be told in town meetings. However, unlike Justice Kennedy and his 5-4 majority, I believe the answer is to remove all prayer from such town hall meetings. If private citizens wish to reference divinity in their petitions they may freely do so, but the State itself should not be actively pursuing preachers to speak at the request and support of the government.

The first criticism of the court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway is that the justices in the majority were clouded by their own religious bias. In her dissent, Justice Kagan suggested that a similar ruling would not have been reached had a Christian hypothetically complained about Islamic prayers being told in a Muslim-majority town, and she is almost certainly correct. It is also worth pointing out that the five justices in the majority are all Catholic, whereas the four dissenters include all three of the court’s non-Christians. Both of these points seem to allude to the court’s “religious favoritism” and thus a treatment of non-Christians as less important in public life. Furthermore the debate focused primarily on whether prayers should be allowed to invoke the Holy Spirit or other specific sectarian ideals, and in this broader support for religious invocation the court successfully disenfranchised non-believers across America.

Beyond the religious divide amongst the justices of the court, the religious lines dividing how the ruling was received are also telling. Christian groups across America praised the decision, while minority groups – such as the Hindu American Foundation, Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, and the Center for Inquiry (a humanist group) – all condemned the court’s ruling. Perhaps in anticipation of such criticism, Justice Kennedy wrote that “adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable”, and thus it was up to citizens to turn away or respectfully refuse to participate in prayer. However, the assertion that abstainers from prayer will go unnoticed is preposterously out-of-touch. As certainly be noticed, and may even impact their ability to be granted permits or engage with their fellows citizens later in the meeting.

The concept of erecting a “wall of separation” (to borrow a phrase from Thomas Jefferson) between the Church and State is deeply seeded in the American political tradition. It finds its origins in the Founding Fathers’ desire to distinguish their new nation from the religious conflicts of Europe, particularly the state-established Church of England, an institution which for centuries caused bloodshed as royals attempted to convert the nation to Catholicism and then back to Protestantism. Over the past century, the Supreme Court has continually ruled in favor of religious minorities and secular institutions. In McCreary County v. ACLU (2005) the court ordered the Ten Commandments be removed from a state court house, in Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971) they ruled that taxpayers money could not fund religious schools, and in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) the Supreme Court even struck down an Alabama state law which established a moment for “silent prayer or meditation” in public schools. Writing for the majority in Wallace, Justice Stevens explained that “the government must pursue a course of complete neutrality toward religion”.

However, in 1983 the Supreme Court, in an uncharacteristic move relative to other establishment clause decisions, ruled in the landmark Marsh v. Chambers case that it was constitutional for legislative bodies to fund chaplains. The logic behind this ruling was supposedly that America has a “unique history” and that invocation of divine guidance is simply an “acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country”. With the Marsh decision as precedent it is less surprising that the court ruled in favor of the Town of Greece, yet that does not make the ruling any more acceptable.

The United States has never been a majoritarian nation, nor has it ever been a Christian nation, and the argument that state-supported prayer is valid simply because many Americans align with that view is based on faulty logic. The Constitution forbids the establishment of a state religion, and over the past century the Supreme Court has made numerous decisions aimed at maintaining neutrality towards religion. In Marsh v. Chambers, Chief Justice Burger discarded the previously established test for Establishment Clause cases – such as establishing a secular purpose other than the pure promotion of religion – and since then we have begun to see the U.S. move backwards as religion progresses into what should be secular institutions. In fact in 2012 Tennessee even passed a law allowing teachers the discretion to explore the weaknesses of evolution, much to the support of creationists.

As can be seen from the debate surrounding the Town of Greece case, many in America on both sides seem to agree that state acknowledgement of some supernatural being is acceptable, but that supporting any one vein of religion is the problem. I disagree quite fundamentally with this argument, and believe that in modern America this is not what the Framer’s would have intended. While an overwhelming majority of Americans may be believers in a god, be it Yahweh, Allah, or Jesus; this does not allow the government to actively support monotheism over polytheism, atheism, or any other form of religious belief (or the lack thereof). This is certainly not to say governments should preach state atheism, but that the State should remain entirely neutral towards religious belief.

It is no secret that many of America’s Founding Fathers were not particularly friendly to religious establishments, yet others were devoutly religious. What united the Framers of the Constitution was that above all they were secularists, and they shared the belief that the U.S. government should have no role in religion. The Supreme Court’s latest decision not only disregards these founding principles, but also is oblivious to the growing religious diversity of the United States. Thus perhaps instead of saying ‘if you don’t like it you can leave’, the nation’s highest court should be espousing the inclusive ideals that founded America in the first place.

-Michael Swistara



About Michael Swistara

Michael graduated from McGill University in 2015 with a double major in political science and economics, and currently attends Columbia University where he is pursuing a master's degree. As former Editor-in-Chief of the Political Bouillon, Michael continues to occasionally contribute articles on his favorite topics, including American politics, economic policy, and foreign affairs.

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