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My Take: Town prayers need less Jesus, more Krishna
May 21st, 2013
11:35 AM ET

My Take: Town prayers need less Jesus, more Krishna

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN) — At first glance, it would seem that the town of Greece, New York, has been brazenly violating the First Amendment. For roughly a decade, it invited local Christians — and only Christians — to offer prayers opening its Town Board meetings.

Two non-Christian town residents — Susan Galloway (who is Jewish) and Linda Stephens (who is an atheist) — objected, arguing that this practice violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.”

The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, finding that the town’s practice of repeatedly inviting Christians to offer demonstrably Christian prayers amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of Christianity. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to take up the case.

As Town of Greece v. Galloway made its way through the courts, the town, represented by the Arizona-based (and faith-based) nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, argued that the founders prayed in public, and members of the U.S. Congress continue to do so today. To side with Galloway and Stephens, therefore, is to determine that members of the House and Senate have been violating the constitution for over two centuries.

Ayesha Khan, legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which represents Galloway and Stephens in the lawsuit, said in a statement that “legislative bodies should focus on serving the community and stay out of the business of promoting religion.”

That is unlikely to happen, since there is, as Alliance Defending Freedom has argued, an “unambiguous and unbroken history” of prayer in government bodies in the United States. But there is an equally long history of ensuring that these prayers are, as Americans United has observed, “inclusive and non-sectarian.” And those in Greece were neither.

According to the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision, “Christian clergy delivered each and every one of the prayers for the first nine years of the town’s prayer practice, and nearly all of the prayers thereafter.” Moreover, “a substantial majority of the prayers in the record contained uniquely Christian language,” including references to “Jesus Christ” as “our Savior.”

This “steady drumbeat of often specifically sectarian Christian prayers,” the appeals court concluded, left an indelible “impression” that the town was “associated ... with the Christian religion.”

Town of Greece v. Galloway is a vexing case. What makes it vexing is that, when it comes to church/state questions, Americans have traditionally opted for a middle path between a theocratic marriage and Great-Wall-of-China-style separation. As a result, U.S. Supreme Court justices are left in many cases to intuit whether a particular practice leans too far toward either extreme to be acceptable.

Nonetheless, there seems to be a clear path forward here.

As I see it, the U.S. Supreme Court is not going to outlaw prayer in the U.S. Congress or in town board meetings. It made that clear in Marsh v. Chambers (1983), where it upheld a tradition of opening prayers in the Nebraska state legislature.

But neither is the Supreme Court going to permit in these venues a “steady drumbeat of often specifically sectarian Christian prayers."

In other words, the question the Supreme Court decided on Monday to take up is not whether town boards can pray but what sorts of prayer practices are constitutional in governmental settings.

When the founders listened to prayers in the early republic, they never would have allowed any one Christian denomination to enjoy a monopoly over the others. But neither would they have insisted that some be delivered by a Muslim or a Hindu, as is the practice in the U.S. Congress today. Nonetheless, the key principle was established — that such prayers should reflect the religious diversity of the nation at the time.

That diversity is much broader today, of course. At the interfaith prayer services after 9/11 and after the Boston marathon bombings, it was not enough to have a Presbyterian and a Quaker rubbing shoulders with a Congregationalist. Such services are not truly interfaith nowadays unless they include Catholics and Jews, Muslims and Sikhs, and perhaps a secular humanist, too.

In a “friend of the court” brief signed by 49 members of Congress, the Family Research Council argued that 97% of the prayers offered in the U.S. Congress are offered by Christians and the “majority of these prayers include identifiably Christian content.”

If that is true, then that needs to change, lest Americans be given the impression that the U.S. Congress is a Christian missionary organization. Still, it should be noted that the prayer practice in Greece was even more egregiously exclusive and sectarian, with all the prayers over a nine year period being given by Christians.

After Greece’s town board was called out by Galloway and Stephens, it caught a brief whiff of pluralism (and constitutionality) in 2008, when it allowed prayers to be offered by a Wiccan, a Baha’i, and a Jew. Thereafter, however, it returned to the unconstitutional practice of inviting only Christian clergy.

That practice might have been permissible in 1787 or 1812, but it does not pass constitutional muster in 2013, when the United States is, as President Barack Obama acknowledged in his first inaugural address, “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers.”

In discussions about this case, defenders of the town have expressed nostalgia for a time when Christian prayers — and only Christian prayers — would pass constitutional muster. Defenders of Galloway and Stephens have hoped for a future when no prayers would be allowed at such gatherings. The Supreme Court is likely to please neither side, nor should it.

Our tradition is to allow public prayer at public gatherings of this sort, but to insist that such prayers (in the aggregate) be inclusive and non-sectarian. So if the citizens of Greece, New York, want to continue to hear before their town board meetings that Jesus Christ is "our savior," they are going to have to line up some Hindu priests willing to tell them that Krishna is "our Lord." Anything less than that just won't pass constitutional muster, at least not in 2013.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Baha'i • Church and state • Interfaith issues • United States

soundoff (369 Responses)
  1. ytmac

    If you want to be truly representative with the prayers, you would use census data to tabulate the percentages of people who practice each religion, and then divide up the prayers by religion accordingly. Still, of course, in the US most prayers would be Christian, with smaller percentage of prayers being devoted to other faiths, and then the occasional meeting with no prayer at all, for the athiests.

    The better approach I believe is to drop the opening prayer all together. However, the courts are saying that such a precedent has already been set of having them, that this is not possible.

    Therefore, the earlier solution – " a moment of silence" I think is the best. That moment can be filled individually with a prayer of any faith, with true silence for the meditation people, with nothing in particular for the atheists, or with thoughts about how you are going to remodel your kitchen next week for those who really have no idea about it.

    I think that is the acceptable solution here.

    The multifaith approach has the following problem: how are you going to do it? Have you ever seen a "multifaith meditation room"? Some airports have them. Look at the altar in there; it's a morph of about half-a-dozen religious icons smushed together in one (in my opinion, ugly) image. Do you REALLY want to offer a prayer to something like that?

    I thin it's better to just give the moment of silence, and let each person's mind dwell wherever they want it to for that moment.

    November 9, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
  2. scredly

    The moment of silence seems like the perfect solution. Why does there have to be open, group prayer? Their gods won't hear a silent, personal prayer? It's all about control and pride.

    November 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
  3. lose weight

    My Take: Town prayers need less Jesus, more Krishna – CNN Belief Blog – CNN.com Blogs
    lose weight http://www.genhun.com/html/userinfo.php?uid=66224

    September 28, 2013 at 6:43 am |
  4. William

    This book can change some point of views...

    The Bible Divided By Themes

    June 21, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
  5. faith

    G to the T
    Faith – you are welcome to listen to him anytime you want. The governement however, is not allowed to take sides (i.e. promote one religion over another) so the only reasonable option I can think of is to eliminate it from the sphere of politics completely.

    praise god for the beautiful sunset said in a public setting is illegal

    June 16, 2013 at 11:42 pm |
  6. A cow

    The more of you humans become Hindu's the happier I'll be. Some cultures think of me as a sentient being you know and not just "MacFood". I have a face, I feel pain. I won't tell you to eat more "chiken" either...eat more veggies.

    June 9, 2013 at 5:49 pm |
  7. uspatriot1982

    America has not been short on people of faith in God and those that have acknowledged Jesus as their savior and look where it got us for over 200 years . We are the longest lasting democracy and a nation of free men and women. I think that will change in my lifetime and the non believers, such as those that seem to enjoy trolling on a beliefs site, will see the fruit of their labors. Destruction and chaos at their own hands, God will not have much to do but clean up after them.
    Nay sayers can compare notes on what they have done, their greatest contribution is to have mooched off the sweat of the Christians brow. I will continue to insist my congressman and other leaders seek the guidance of God as long as possible.

    June 6, 2013 at 10:21 pm |
    • LinCA

      @uspatriot1982

      You said, "America has not been short on people of faith in God and those that have acknowledged Jesus as their savior and look where it got us for over 200 years . We are the longest lasting democracy and a nation of free men and women."
      The US was great in spite of the religious. The only reason other nations didn't get ahead much was because they were also held back by the deluded.

      You said, "I think that will change in my lifetime and the non believers, such as those that seem to enjoy trolling on a beliefs site, will see the fruit of their labors."
      Get a fucking clue. It's the religious dimwits that hold this country back. The US economy is getting steam-rolled by the Chinese, and they are not christians.

      You said, "Destruction and chaos at their own hands, God will not have much to do but clean up after them."
      Your imaginary friend is no more likely to exist than the Tooth Fairy. If there's any cleaning up to do, it will be because the religious hold us back and cause this country to fall behind in science and technology. If this country doesn't pull it's collective head out of it's ass and gets serious about science education, all you and your ilk will be doing is cleanup in aisle 14.

      You said, "Nay sayers can compare notes on what they have done, their greatest contribution is to have mooched off the sweat of the Christians brow."
      Bullshit. The smarter you are, and the better educated you are, the more likely you are to be an atheist. It is the dumbfucks like yourself that are predominantly religious.

      You said, "I will continue to insist my congressman and other leaders seek the guidance of God as long as possible."
      Might as well ask the Easter Bunny.

      June 6, 2013 at 10:34 pm |
    • uspatriot1982

      LinCA
      You are spot on with your rage and language for the non-believer trolls on this "belief" site. Thanks for proving my point. The hate you have will prevail for a short season and be destroyed. My joy will last for an eternity. In the meantime, the overwhelming majority of Joes like me will serve this country because it is worth working for, fighting for and dying for as many have done, at least for now. When your views become the majority, we will see how many are willing to keep serving then. The outsourcing will not be nearly as successful as we have been.

      June 6, 2013 at 11:17 pm |
    • LinCA

      @uspatriot1982

      You said, "You are spot on with your rage and language for the non-believer trolls on this "belief" site. Thanks for proving my point."
      My "rage" is at the insufferable ignorance, both in your post and pervasive in the average believer. You didn't have a point, just unsubstantiated nonsense.

      You said, "The hate you have will prevail for a short season and be destroyed."
      No hate here. Just exasperation at the boundless stupidity.

      You said, "My joy will last for an eternity."
      Yeah, tell Odin "Hi" if you happen to see him before I do.

      You said, "In the meantime, the overwhelming majority of Joes like me will serve this country because it is worth working for, fighting for and dying for as many have done, at least for now."
      So have, and still do very many atheists. And atheists don't have to choose between serving an imaginary friend and serving their real community.

      You said, "When your views become the majority, we will see how many are willing to keep serving then."
      It appears that you are the one blinded by ignorance and hate.

      You said, "The outsourcing will not be nearly as successful as we have been."
      Outsourcing is done to because it is cheaper. Companies, may of which are run by christians, outsource because they can get the same level of skill and education cheaper elsewhere. It has been the political right, with the support of the religious that has been instrumental in driving outsourcing.

      If you want to fix the country, start by not voting against your own interests.

      June 7, 2013 at 10:18 am |
  8. Science

    Hey faithy seems like you have not been weaned yet sort of like chadie .............reminds me of a 5 year old ?

    Monkey Teeth Help Reveal Neanderthal Weaning

    May 24, 2013 — Most modern human mothers wean their babies much earlier than our closest primate relatives. But what about our extinct relatives, the Neanderthals?

    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/05/130524104828.htm

    Current search on Bing chadie ..........bookmark update chad........3rd one from top of page.

    RDFRS: When Christians become a 'hated minority'

    http://www.richarddawkins.net/.../5/5/when-christians-become-a-hated-minority

    11,000,000 results Any time

    Splat Chad/lol??.............the trolls..........faithy too !

    June 4, 2013 at 8:50 am |
    • Austin

      Science. Your hobby is lop sided.

      June 16, 2013 at 11:49 pm |
  9. Gibson Joy

    It seems to me that there is no longer any room for truth in society any more. We've become so socially wired and afraid almost that we're afraid to stand for the time-tested truths which have made America what it is today. And all of the erosion that we've seen in the last 40 years or so have been the direct result of a blatant deviation from the truth to allow anything that seems socially viable or acceptable or what 'feels good' rather than what is true. Therefore we're left with a time in a generation that doesn't care what our leaders are like in private, what our social values are as long as they sound politically correct.
    Mr. Stephen I suggest you take a long hard look at the claims Of Jesus and try and come up with any strong reason why he's not the Saviour of the world. If you're really interested in the truth. But of course if you're only looking for issuing popular readable material without getting the bottom of the more important issues at hand which is truth, justice, honour, integrity and the like, never mind.
    Jesus is not called the Saviour because someone somewhere thought it would be a good idea to throw in another name in the long list of religious names out there. He is the Saviour because he is God reaching out to a broken human race desperately in need of transformation which can come only by us using our freedom to allow him to change us.
    He is the Saviour because he proved it not only with his words but with his life.
    The truth is more important.

    June 3, 2013 at 5:02 am |
    • Veylon

      This is about truth, honor, and integrity. As I was taught in church, Jesus is love; he is the person we are trying emulate by reaching out to others to befriend and appreciate them. Courage and conviction are shown not by domination but by inclusion. A truly secure person is unthreatened by differing views or faiths.

      Your first paragraph is quite right, though. We have given up a belief in society as a whole. Leaders are held unaccountable; who cares if Romney enriches himself through abortion or if Dick Cheney feeds out of the government trough? It is nothing to so-called "Christians" to label Mormons a cult one day and embrace them the next. To decry African Americans for the "Curse of Ham" one day and attempt to claim Martin Luther King's mantle the next. To call "blood libel" against Jews one day and hold up "Judeo-Christian" values the next. They claim to build their house on solid ground but are as changeable as the winds. What do they care whether Christ or Krishna is praised? It is to Mammon that their prayers extend.

      I would love to see real Christians with open hearts who reach out to others with kindness. But they are mostly gone.

      June 23, 2013 at 1:24 am |
  10. Wow

    There is no Krishna nor a Jesus to be proclaimed as a "God". "God" was created by human being. Nice try keep trying...it's fun to watch how children play...

    June 1, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • Rob-Texas

      Or the ignorant speak…

      June 3, 2013 at 10:10 am |
    • Enjoyment

      I'm a big Krishna fan as a symbol. Do I believe there is literally a guy floating in the air...no. Do I enjoy the imagery and the paintings and get some personal meaning from the idea of Krishna..yes. I don't feel like I need to crowd out any religions nor do I feel like I need to give up my Krishna related hobbies to please anyone. There is alot of middle ground between religious fanaticism and atheism.

      July 1, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
  11. Joey Isotta-Fraschini, D.D. ©™

    Just meet. Don't pray.

    May 30, 2013 at 9:06 am |
  12. hari bol

    lord krishna is true god and jesus is his devotee...so all foolsih nris who have zero knowledge about spirituality and god,please,stop ur stupid discussion here,its better u use ur brain in ur material life things...haha

    May 29, 2013 at 7:18 am |
  13. Question for non Christians

    Explain this to me like I am four years old because I am really not getting it. First let me preface this by saying I don't mind anybody's viewpoint religiously...I just don't tend to believe in supernatural happenings as a rule. I conceed that I don't know everything.

    When I think about Jesus the actual historical figure I feel compassion. So why would I not want to hear about him? Is it because you are afraid I would take up other peoples politics? I'm not trying to be a jerk here I'm just really thinking about this instead of just making jokes for once. I really don't know if the historical figure actually existed or not.

    I do get that to date any spirituality is unscientific but the truth is I have had wierd things happen. Enough to lead me to be reading the CNN belief blog and scratching my head on everything.

    Suffice to say I feel confident in saying I have no idea if there is anything spiritual that exists or not, or if there is what it is. I hope that makes sense.

    I'm not looking for a Christian to read from the bible and convert me, I am honestly wondering about the posters who are rabidly anti-Christian to explain to me why I should detest Christianity in its entirity because to be honest I just dont. I look at an image of Jesus and I think wow I really feel bad for that person suffering. I don't think that other people's bad political decisions should change a compassionate reaction to a person in pain.

    It's a different story if the historical figure did not actually exist of course.

    Krishna, from what I've read has a similar type of message that I don't realy object to either. Same question if none of this stuff exists then where did the ideas all come from?

    I don't know the selling point again would be supernatural things of any sort can't possibly happen (which after a few wierd experiences I doubt the non existence of supernatural things now).

    I hope that makes sense...just trying to be upfront about my own views.

    May 27, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      Over the centuries, religion has gone hand-in-hand with power – kings rule by divine decree was the message. Gradually that tie has largely gone, but the christians in the USA at least want to impose their religion on the rest of us despite the First Amendment: biblical texts on public buildings, their god on the currency, their religious beliefs to be law, christian prayer at public events, etc.

      May 28, 2013 at 8:54 pm |
    • Rob-Texas

      In Santa we trust, you are completely wrong. You say Chrisitians like all Chrisitians are exacly the same. Also, it is not against the 1st amendment for religious words or texts or symbols to be in the public arena. I realize that you feel if there is bible verse on a building it makes it some kind of temple the aggressivly offends you. That is just not the case and I a pretty sure you know that. Before someone brought up the idea that these things were breaking your 1st amendment right, I bet you never even really noticed them. You certianly didn't care about them.

      June 3, 2013 at 10:17 am |
  14. The sound of silence

    People pray to alot of things/people I don't necessarily believe in, and I don't think it will do much. However out loud or in silence either way doesn't bother me. It never occured to me to be offeneded by it. I'm more bothered by the idea of people being forced to keep silent.

    Pray to Krishna, Jesus or fairies if you want to, pray to Loki and Odin, Satan or Sponge Bob. It's your choice. I don't personally mind, I don't care if it's in public and I'll sit silently with you while you do it.

    May 27, 2013 at 6:59 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.