I believe President Jed Bartlett explained legislative prayer best during the Red Mass episode. When Charlie asked why it’s okay to have a mass to celebrate the beginning of the Supreme Court’s terms, Barlett said, “And so how isn’t it a Constitutional issue? It is, but sometimes you say, ‘Big deal.’ It was the intention not to have a national religion, not to have anyone’s religious views imposed on anyone else, and not to have the government encourage a national display of piety as a substitute for real action.”
I think that’s basically right. I think prayer in schools is an unconstitutional indoctrination into religion for kids who are required by law to be there. I think making marriage laws based on Leviticus is bigoted and stupid. But if grown-ass adults want to have a prayer before they start legislating, I say “big deal.”
And I thought “big deal” was pretty well established law. So like everybody else, I was a little surprised to see that the Supreme Court granted cert in Greece v. Galloway, a case involving legislative prayer.
Maybe SCOTUS just wants to smack around the Second Circuit?
As usual, SCOTUSblog does a great job explaining the history of the case:
In the town of Greece, which is located in Monroe County just outside of Rochester, the opening prayer practice began in 1999 and continued at least through 2010, when lower courts ruled on its validity. As the case reached the Supreme Court in a plea by the town, the practice had been ruled unconstitutional by the Second Circuit Court.
With two local residents challenging the prayer ritual, the Circuit Court concluded that — on the specific facts of this case alone — the recitation by clergy had the effect of aligning the town government officially with a particular faith — Christianity. The Circuit Court stressed that it was not ruling that a local government could never open its meetings with prayers or a religious invocation, nor was it adopting a specific test that would allow prayer in theory but make it impossible in reality.
The “big deal” law, enshrined in the Marsh v. Chambers case, says that you can open your government services with a prayer if such traditions are enshrined in your community. There’s a wonderful practicality with that ruling. It means the federal government won’t break down your legislative doors if praying is your thing, while also acknowledging that you shouldn’t use prayer to stick it to non-religious people or people with a different religion.
Clearly the issue here is whether just starting your prayer practice in 1999 constitutes a deeply held community tradition. I probably agree more with the Second Circuit. I’m sure religious fundamentalists feel differently. I’d like to point out that if the town of Greece interrupted town meetings to pray to Mecca seven times a day, people would absolutely freak out, but the people who support these kinds of “prayer in…” type conventions are usually oblivious to their own hypocrisy.
My point is why should we care? And why does the Supreme Court care? Sure, I think this should come down one way and other people think it should come down another way, but don’t we have bigger issues — even bigger church v. state issues — than whether some town alderman gets to say “what’s up Jesus” before he continues grafting?
The Court hasn’t gotten into this issue since 1983. No member currently on the Court ruled on the old Marsh case. Are the current Nine just dying to weigh in? Isn’t messing around with affirmative action, gay rights, and oh yeah, PICKING A PRESIDENT, enough of thing for this current crop?
If they all rule unanimously against the Second Circuit, I guess I understand. It seems like a silly reason to re-litigate this issue, but the Court isn’t supposed to care when they take a fart all over the political process.
If they all rule unanimously to affirm the Second Circuit, does that mean Marsh is dead? Is that the start of a new, more enlightened understanding of the establishment clause? What about Scalia or Thomas suggests that we are about to be enlightened?
And if they vote five-four on party lines, then what the hell are they doing? Honestly, what the hell is the point of making a wedge firestorm over town meeting convocation? We can’t fight about everything all time in a war of cultures.
No kids were harmed. Come on guys, this was no big deal. The most progressive (television) president of my lifetime said so.
Court to rule on government prayer [SCOTUSblog]