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May 5th, 2014
04:23 PM ET

After Supreme Court ruling, do religious minorities have a prayer?

By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-editor

(CNN) - If you don't like it, leave the room.

That's Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy's advice for atheists and others who object to sectarian prayers before government meetings.

In a 5-4 decision written by Kennedy, the Supreme Court allowed Greece, New York, to continue hosting prayers before its monthly town board meetings - even though an atheist and a Jewish citizen complained that the benedictions are almost always explicitly Christian.

Many members of the country's majority faith - that is, Christians - hailed the ruling.

Many members of minority faiths, as well as atheists, responded with palpable anger, saying the Supreme Court has set them apart as second-class citizens.

Groups from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to the Hindu American Foundation decried Monday's decision.

"The court’s decision to bless ‘majority-rules’ prayer is out of step with the changing face of America, which is more secular and less dogmatic,” said Rob Boston, a spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, which litigated the case.

At least one justice, Elena Kagan, seemed to agree. And while Kennedy's decision reads like a lesson in American history, Kagan's dissent offers a picture of the country's increasingly pluralistic present.

American politicians have prayed before public gatherings since the Founding Fathers crowded into a stuffy Philadelphia room to crank out the Constitution, Kennedy writes.

The inaugural and "emphatically Christian" prayer at the First Continental Congress was delivered by an Anglican minister, who overcame objections from the assembled Quakers, Anabaptists and Presbyterians.

The prayer united the mostly Christian Founding Fathers, and the rest is history, Kennedy writes.

So, the justice suggests, as long prayers at public meetings don't fall into a pattern of proselytizing, denigrating nonbelievers or threatening damnation, what's the problem?

According to a recent poll, the vast majority of Americans share Kennedy's view.

Less than 23% of Americans told pollsters at Fairleigh Dickinson University that they dislike prayers at public government meetings.

“This has always been a praying nation, despite its very secular Constitution,” said Peter J. Woolley, professor of comparative politics at Fairleigh Dickinson in Hackensack, New Jersey.

“People generally see generic prayer as harmless, if not uplifting, not as something that is oppressive.”

But what about people who like their local government meetings to be religion-free?

"Should nonbelievers choose to exit the room during a prayer they find distasteful, their absence will not stand out as disrespectful or even noteworthy," Kennedy writes.

Kagan, writing for the dissenting minority, sharply disagreed.

She suggested that the five justices who formed the majority - all of whom are Catholic - don't understand what it's like to belong to a minority faith in America.

The Supreme Court's Catholic majority seems to think that, because many prayers before government meetings take on a ceremonial aspect, the actual content of the prayers doesn't matter, Kagan continues.

In essence, she said, the majority is making light of religious differences while conferring a special role on Christianity.

"Contrary to the majority's apparent view, such sectarian prayers are not 'part of our expressive idiom' or 'part of our heritage and tradition,' assuming that 'our' refers to all Americans. They express beliefs that are fundamental to some, foreign to others - and because of that they carry the ever-present potential to divide and exclude."

To illustrate her point, Kagan, who is Jewish, raises a hypothetical scenario.

Let's say there's a Muslim resident of Greece, New York, who appears before the town board to share her policy views or request a permit.

Just before the Muslim woman makes her argument, a minister "deputized by the town" asks the room to pray in the name of "God's only son Jesus Christ."

With less than a dozen people the room, every action is noticed.

So, the Muslim woman has two choices, Kagan argues: 1) Go along with the majority and pray, despite her religious objections, or 2) Risk causing some kind of disturbance or public disagreement with the very people she is trying to persuade.

"And thus she stands at a remove, based solely on religion, from her fellow citizens and her elected representatives," Kagan writes.

Kagan did not suggest that the Supreme Court's majority (Kennedy, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito) voted to uphold sectarian prayer because they are members of the country's largest church, Roman Catholicism.

But Ronald Lindsay of the Center for Inquiry, a Humanist group, called it "striking and sad" that "five of the six Christian justices on the Supreme Court formed the majority." (Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is Catholic, voted with Kagan.)

"With a Supreme Court that appears hostile to the rights of religious minorities, those of us who believe in a secular government must redouble our legal and advocacy efforts,” Lindsay said.

Of course, there's a great gap between being Catholic and using the gavel to promote Christianity.

But a new study conducted by scholars at the University of Southern California offers intriguing insights into how the justices have voted on First Amendment issues.

The upshot: The conservative justices tend to side with conservative causes; the liberals with liberal ones.

"Supreme Court Justices are opportunistic supporters of the First Amendment," write the scholars.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Catholic Church • Christianity • Church and state • Courts • Discrimination • Interfaith issues • Prejudice • Religious liberty

soundoff (2,070 Responses)
  1. toddrlockwood

    So much for the founding fathers doctrine on the separation of church and state. Prayers of any denomination have no place in congress or at the local zoning board meeting. Mixing God and Government is exactly what's wrong with the Middle East. Why do we insist on copying them?

    May 5, 2014 at 9:53 pm |
    • elyhim01

      You Sir have just won the internets.

      /upvote

      May 5, 2014 at 9:55 pm |
  2. ddeevviinn

    Separation of church and state, it's what protects us from each other. State sanctioned public prayer, or the lack thereof, has absolutely no impact on my prayer life or communion with my creator.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:50 pm |
    • G to the T

      On that, I'd say we can agree devin

      May 6, 2014 at 12:59 pm |
  3. Doris

    Next at the Supreme Court: Justice Scalia confirms that the devil can be anywhere....

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4JuSfRgh0Vo&w=640&h=360]

    May 5, 2014 at 9:49 pm |
  4. ickelly

    That is so awesome. Finally faith recognized as a right along with the others, however, ignorance of the 'others' is not in question.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:49 pm |
    • grumpy0ldman

      You've always had a right to your faith but not a right to shove it down my throat.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:52 pm |
  5. elyhim01

    As long as I am not punished by mocking them while they pray in the public forum.

    If I'm thrown out of a public space for commenting on their prayer or interrupting would that not be a restriction of my rights and evidence of government sponsored religion?

    May 5, 2014 at 9:49 pm |
  6. Alias

    These ar Catholics.
    If someone doesn't do something they will be either sacrificing or raping a child to start school board meetings next.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:47 pm |
    • educatedatheist

      catholics are clearly some of the biggest hypocrites in the world they have single handedly taken out the second commandment from the Bible and replaced it with a different one just so they can worship the image of Christ

      May 5, 2014 at 9:50 pm |
  7. lexingtonbobby

    Good ruling! Atheists can simply walk away. Booyah!

    May 5, 2014 at 9:46 pm |
    • Alias

      Or I can pray to another god while you pray to yours.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:47 pm |
      • lexingtonbobby

        Your call, knock yourself out.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:49 pm |
        • Alias

          Just keep in mind that Satan is a diety in your bible.
          – and you thought you were monotheistic.

          May 5, 2014 at 9:54 pm |
    • observer

      lexingtonbobby,

      Do you support atheists being given equal time to talk and you can leave?

      May 5, 2014 at 9:51 pm |
    • In Santa We Trust

      Let's arrange for Hindu prayers at your next town meeting, Sikh the one after, Muslim, Buddhist, Shinto, etc. etc.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:55 pm |
    • Madtown

      How 'bout just getting down to governmental business when you(not you specifically) come to these meetings? Pray at home before you leave, pray in the car. When you do the business of the people, it's for ALL the people. Leave religion out of it, religion is personal. Let's strive to increase governmental efficiency, not bog it down further with more time taken so everyone can get their respective prayers in.

      May 5, 2014 at 10:02 pm |
    • igaftr

      Telling people they can just walk away, when it is a governmet meeting ....how is that a solution? You are making someone else uncomfortable with an inappropriate religious display at a business meeting. Better solution...don't waste governemnt time with your religious display, Pray BEFORE the meeting commences or in your own head, and then all can get down to business without an inappropriate delay. Nowhere in christianity does it say they have to pray before meetings, so it does not violate their religion in the slightest.

      May 6, 2014 at 1:05 pm |
  8. tsnorris1965

    Atheists seem, in general, to be quite angry people.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:46 pm |
    • lexingtonbobby

      Ditto, they are quite angry and enjoy the friction!

      May 5, 2014 at 9:48 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      I'd say they're less obnoxious than the "if you don't like it you can leave" crowd here tonight.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:48 pm |
    • ksocreative

      and while we're busy making generalizations, all christians should actually read the book they worship and listen to the prophet they think is god incarnate.

      "When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get."

      Matthew 6:5

      May 5, 2014 at 9:48 pm |
      • elyhim01

        That would require effort, literacy and comprehension. If they had all that they'd be atheists by the end of Kings.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:57 pm |
    • In Santa We Trust

      Do you have any examples?
      How would you feel if it were Hindu prayers at your town meeting?

      May 5, 2014 at 9:50 pm |
    • grumpy0ldman

      We are now.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:50 pm |
    • cafeeine

      Only when we are given something to be angry about.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:52 pm |
  9. jonathanlk

    City Hall is not a Church. This is not why I pay taxes. Can I go swimming on a public bus with a big plastic tub, and make everyone get off the bus who doesn't like it? So politicians lie, drink, stymie progress, commit infidelities, and and now also pray. Does anyone think we might someday be able to do away with politicians and just fund the public services we need,, like sanitation, education, security guards (police who protect us instead of threatening us)? What else do we need, maybe a Peace Machine" that promotes and ensures peace instead of the war machine. How about a science class in the town hall for every prayer? People who want to stay ignorant have to leave. Even the judges have poor judgement OMG. As a nation we are crumbling fast while third world countries are passing us in every category. This is why, stupidity.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:45 pm |
    • kp10012

      You would be the first one out the door

      May 5, 2014 at 9:46 pm |
      • lexingtonbobby

        Amen, Ditto!

        May 5, 2014 at 9:50 pm |
      • danab1234

        You obviously did not do well in science class. You probably got an A in mythology class though.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:52 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "What else do we need, maybe a Peace Machine" that promotes and ensures peace instead of the war machine."
      -------------------
      "Peace Machine"? Hmmm. I'm thinking Gort.

      When the machines rise you'll have all you wish. I'd add a smiley emoticon but they're banned.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:54 pm |
  10. jeffpo2014

    I am an Agnostic and I don't really care if a person prays in front of me, no matter their faith. Stop being so self-righteous. you ultra religious zellets...

    May 5, 2014 at 9:42 pm |
    • 123elle

      Try learning how to spell zealot before you throw the word around at people who think differently from you.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:44 pm |
  11. danab1234

    What happened to the separation of church and state? It's a GOVERNMENT meeting. Keep your absurd, magical nonsense out of it.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:42 pm |
    • kp10012

      No more than your absurd rantings on these comments...if you don't like it move to another country that gives everyone the right to be a moron their whole life

      May 5, 2014 at 9:45 pm |
      • shaupeen

        Judging by your response, we are in that country right now! Hooray.
        You may now continue with your organized hypocrisy.

        May 5, 2014 at 10:01 pm |
    • larper2

      There is no such thing as separation of Church and State. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." No law was formed against the prayer or for the prayer.

      May 5, 2014 at 10:08 pm |
      • rickdday

        and no law said everyone has the right to own infinite guns either. See how this works?

        May 6, 2014 at 1:17 am |
  12. guy250677

    I am far left of center when it comes to my politics. However, the Supreme Court got it right here. Contrary to Ms. Kagan's diatribe or lectured views, I have several Jewish friends and some family. Newsflash Ms. Kagan... we pray to the same God. There are some things that are simply healthy for society and like it or not, a simple prayer or moment of reflection is healthy for society.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:41 pm |
    • observer

      guy250677,

      You don't pray to the SAME God. Jews do not pray to a God who impregnated an engaged woman and had a son named Jesus.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:43 pm |
      • guy250677

        Judeo-Christian.........common ethical value system....Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism share Old Testament teachings. I know what I am talking about, unlike some.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:54 pm |
        • observer

          guy250677,

          Try again. Do Jews worship a God who impregnated an engaged woman and had a son named Jesus? There have been THOUSANDS of gods.

          May 5, 2014 at 9:58 pm |
      • elyhim01

        LOL same god. Muslim's Christians and Jews pray to the same god. Wow people really don't read their bibles at all.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:59 pm |
        • G to the T

          I would say they are very different even if they started from same source.

          Jew – there is only God (no jesus, no holy spirit, etc.)
          Muslim – Jesus was not God
          Christian – there is one God in three aspects.

          These are fundamentally different ideas about who "god" is.

          May 6, 2014 at 1:08 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Tell that to the Hindus Buddhists, Taoists, Satanists, Odinists, Animists, Wiccans, etc, (I'm sure you get my drift).

      May 5, 2014 at 9:44 pm |
    • In Santa We Trust

      This has to do with separation of church and state not politics. Jews do not worship Jesus so are you sure that the christians won't invoke his name?

      May 5, 2014 at 9:45 pm |
      • guy250677

        Nobody said Jews worship Jesus. Get a clue. Jews do believe in the scripture of the Old Testament however, and respect Jesus Christ, but not as the born again savior.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:56 pm |
        • In Santa We Trust

          So why do you think Jews would want to hear christian prayers? Why do you think any non-christian would want to hear christian prayers?

          May 5, 2014 at 10:15 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        "I have several Jewish friends and some family. Newsflash Ms. Kagan... we pray to the same God."
        --------------------
        I'm still trying to figure out where Jesus fits in to that statement.

        May 5, 2014 at 10:00 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      How about Muslims? They worship the Abrahamic God too. Is Allah the same God that you pray to?

      May 5, 2014 at 9:45 pm |
    • danab1234

      Nonsense.
      Praying is like a rocking chair – it'll give you something to do, but it won't get you anywhere.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:46 pm |
      • kp10012

        Tell that to all the people who defeat Cancer when mankind, the same mankind that humanist like to promote, says there is nothing left to save them

        May 5, 2014 at 9:48 pm |
        • In Santa We Trust

          If someone defeats the odds, that's proof of a god – specifically your god? Where was your god during the twisters, floods, storms, fires, etc.? – didn't seem too good at saving people then.

          May 5, 2014 at 9:53 pm |
        • danab1234

          Science cures cancer not an imaginary guy in the sky. Grow up. You sound so foolish.

          May 5, 2014 at 9:54 pm |
        • danab1234

          Are you insane?

          A. I'm sure some of the people that died from cancer also prayed. Where was your "god"?
          B. Why did any of them have cancer in the first place if there is a "god"?

          May 5, 2014 at 10:41 pm |
        • gulliblenomore

          kp.....silly argument. Come back to me with your 'miracles' when somebody, anybody, regrows a limb.

          May 5, 2014 at 11:53 pm |
      • guy250677

        Great, then due it being harmless, we should be able to agree that there is no need to impose your views on what is a waste of time and what is not on everyone else. If you think a few rocks crashed together and created a spirit/soul , then good luck with that. That view would also define everything as meaningless and promote a violent society without regard to anything or anyone other than the self serving/

        May 5, 2014 at 10:00 pm |
    • Doris

      News flash. You don't likely pray to the same god that wrote our Consti.tution by the way. That is unless you don't believe in the supernatural aspects of the Bible including the divinity of Christ. That is unless you don't believe that your god plays an active role in peoples' lives.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:47 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        "You don't likely pray to the same god that wrote our Consti.tution by the way."
        --------------------

        Which God was that Doris. As you know, I'm a big fan of James Madison too, but I wouldn't go that far.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:49 pm |
        • Doris

          Well we all know he grew up a Christian, but he was also obviously influenced by Deism. I was merely contrasting the grand assumption made by the poster.

          May 5, 2014 at 9:52 pm |
  13. aaaaa698085808

    Well think about it. If we could force religious people to STOP praying, couldn't we force atheists to START praying?

    May 5, 2014 at 9:41 pm |
    • In Santa We Trust

      Pray in private.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:46 pm |
      • kp10012

        Walk out in private

        May 5, 2014 at 9:49 pm |
        • danab1234

          Keep your talking snakes, magical ribs, and imaginary people in the sky to yourself. The sane people are sick of it.

          May 5, 2014 at 9:56 pm |
  14. renegade98

    The god belief. No I don't believe and I don't care what the SCOTUS does.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:38 pm |
  15. danab1234

    How about you leave the room when you want to talk to your imaginary friend? That seems more fair and sane.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:37 pm |
  16. abigchocoholic

    What's pathetic here is how the lawyers can't create a bright line test. A bright line test would be–you want to pray at a government event? Fine, take it outside and pray and then come back when you're ready to do government business. That's clear. That's black and white. That rule everyone could follow. But no, our lawyers have to prove how smart they are by analyzing something to death and nit picking and splitting hairs and coming up with some cocca-mamie logic that they don't even fully understand or agree on. One different guy on the court and we have a different rule. One guy!

    Ooh, ahh, how impressive their writing is. Not.

    Society needs simple rules for the average man–not self serving complex diatribes by intellectuals.

    This a perfect example why everyone hates lawyers. Even lawyers hate lawyers.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:37 pm |
    • chuckthefish

      A simple rule for the average man: Ok here you go –

      "A majority gets to choose the invocation prayer. They do this by picking the person who will give the invocation prayer, and it is up to that person what prayer he will give."

      Simple. See?

      May 5, 2014 at 9:40 pm |
      • 123elle

        The tyranny of the majority was one of the Founders' biggest worries.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:47 pm |
    • guy250677

      Talk about exaggerated nonsense. Nobody is that "offended" by a simple invocation. I assume you would prefer a world moral compass whatsoever?

      May 5, 2014 at 9:44 pm |
      • observer

        guy250677,

        Fortunately, our laws do not follow the "moral compass" in the Bible.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:47 pm |
        • Alias

          We used to.
          Then killing people For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge and slavery became illegal.

          May 5, 2014 at 9:57 pm |
  17. hankw4

    sure, i will leave the room when they pray. after they finished their prayers thou, i want an atheist 'prayer' session, then all other people that want to pray in their own faith should do their own thing till all the religious prayers are finish then the official meeting can begin, that is only fair !

    May 5, 2014 at 9:37 pm |
  18. leecrowell30

    Is it me, or is the religious crowd getting louder? I'm only regret that I won't live to see the day when "religion" is cast aside for the foolishness that it is.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:35 pm |
    • kp10012

      You will have a great seat ... Sitting in HELL

      May 5, 2014 at 9:43 pm |
      • danab1234

        Please show us where that is on a map, moron.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:48 pm |
      • elyhim01

        I'd rather spend eternity in hell than worship a god who created it.

        May 5, 2014 at 10:03 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      "is the religious crowd getting louder?"
      ------------------
      They are tonight.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:46 pm |
  19. somedude27

    I look forward to hearing how the town board accepts opening statements and invocations of Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist, Satanist, Jewish, Pagan, Animist, and non-religions nature, equally, without complaint or reservation. This must come to pass now that they have successfully legitimized the act of opening government business with some form of invocation.

    I do wonder if they realized that is precisely what they were doing. Probably not. They probably, and mistakenly, presumed that they were fighting to mix only their own religion with government. But that is not what happened. Now that the right to invoke has been backed by the court, any attempt to suppress a ritual or statement of other religion, or lack thereof, must be regarded as violation in accordance with this ruling.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:34 pm |
    • somedude27

      Oops; that should read, "... and non-religious nature".

      May 5, 2014 at 9:35 pm |
    • Doris

      I agree, but I don't think this prayer thing will change while there is that "tradition" at the top looming. They have to first get rid of the Congressional chaplaincy.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:40 pm |
      • Doris

        And I should point out that Madison wrote on more than one occasional after his presidency that retaining Congressional chaplains was unconsti.tutional and against the principles of religious freedom that he authored in the Consti.tution and the Bill of Rights.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:43 pm |
    • chuckthefish

      If giving a prayer is how the person want's to use their three minutes of time, that's up to them. I'm pretty sure that prior to this ruling an individual could do that. However, that doesn't mean that they get to give a prayer FIRST and then get their 3 minutes afterward. That is distinctly NOT how this is going to work.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:45 pm |
    • elyhim01

      I would agree, I can just see FOX news headlines now... SHARIA prayer in city hall!

      May 5, 2014 at 9:51 pm |
    • kp10012

      Some dude cannot read...it supports the town Board Meetings being able to pray before meetings and unless their board decides otherwise it will be a Christian prayer, not open to every fruit cake who wants to summon whatever their pitiful lives worship. Our founding fathers would throw up if they saw the direction POS Obama has taken this country and have every nut case liberal spew their hatred on everyone else.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:57 pm |
      • G to the T

        And that is precisely why it's wrong. It promotes one religious view over the others. It, in effect, creates a state religion and is subject to the whims of the majority.

        Should only christians live in some areas and only muslims in others to keep it consistent? What happens when christians aren't the majority anymore?

        May 6, 2014 at 1:20 pm |
  20. aevangelista7

    Dumbo ruling.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:33 pm |
    • kp10012

      Dumbo comment

      May 5, 2014 at 9:51 pm |
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About this blog

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.