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

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(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. thesamyaza

    "its not illegal as long as you do not coerced participation"

    "If you don't like it, leave the room." Anthony Kennedy's = coerced participation

    i wonder what he would say if i went into the court house singing
    i know what i would say freedom of speech motherfucker, the fcc can suck my dick. if you don't like it leave the room.

    Christian hypocrisy...

    May 19, 2014 at 2:59 pm |
    • dvdrichards1115

      Where is the hypocracy? I am granting you that Christains like all other people are hypocrits, but I am not sure I understand where they are inthis situation?

      May 19, 2014 at 3:09 pm |
    • thesamyaza

      Christians in power making decisions that benefit Christian.

      still the hypocrisy is plain as day shoud i re-quote

      supreme court decision
      "its not illegal as long as you do not coerced participation"

      "If you don't like it, leave the room." Anthony Kennedy's = coerced participation

      telling some one to pray or leave is coercion, just as much as telling some one to go to church or go to jail.

      they are throwing people out of a public event because they do not wish to pray to their god.

      May 19, 2014 at 4:18 pm |
      • dvdrichards1115

        So you equate standing in a hallway to jail? I mean i have had to wait for meeting in hallways before, but I never felt like I was in jail. I have also had to sit in meetings where I heard things i didn't like, some things that offended me and others and didn't have any physical or mental damage...
        The intimidation of a victim to compel the individual to do some act against his or her will by the use of psychological pressure, physical force, or threats. The crime of intentionally and unlawfully restraining another's freedom by threatening to commit a crime, accusing the victim of a crime, disclosing any secret that would seriously impair the victim's reputation in the community, or by performing or refusing to perform an official action lawfully requested by the victim, or by causing an official to do so.
        Nope, nothing they said fits this legal definition of coercion...

        May 20, 2014 at 9:35 am |
        • Doc Vestibule

          When the power, prestige and financial support of government is placed behind a particular religious belief, the indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion is plain.

          – Supreme Court of the United States – Engel v. Vitale, 1962

          May 20, 2014 at 9:53 am |
        • dvdrichards1115

          Sorry but we are still talking about an opening prayer right? A prayer that is led at the beginning of a meeting. I didn't see this applying to any legislative act, nor did I see that this was a conversation about funding, The case you are siting was a school system FORCING kids to say a particular prayer. The comments of the court absolutely apply to the Engle v. Vitale and I agree with the ruling. That case isn't the same issue as this one, sorry.

          May 20, 2014 at 11:14 am |
        • thesamyaza

          we are now going to open this mornings with a prayer to our lord Satan if you do not like it leave fells threatening no,.. how about discouraging you from taking part in the meeting all together would you vote for a candidate that worships "satan" what is all candidates worship "Satan"

          this is what i go through every 2 years in November. who should i vote for. the candidate who follows the teaching of a god who sent my people to death and calls my way of life a "evil" or the candidate who;he candidate who follows the teaching of a god who sent my people to death and calls my way of life a "evil" use your cognitive empathy and put your self in the shoes of the people this decision hearts. your god want's to put my people to death and now the Powers of the governments those who are supposed to protect me and mine from you . their siding with you. in the interest of fairness how about no mention if not then all inclusion. expect satanic, Athinic, and all others type of prayer in our government until then no favoritism.

          do you no what it feels like to be in a room full of people professing an ideology that advocates your death. i go to my town hall meeting quite often and its hard for me just to sit their during the pledge of allegiance, because it would offend my ancestors, to swear an oath under your god no i will have to sit their as you prey death upon me and mine.

          May 21, 2014 at 12:49 am |
        • dvdrichards1115

          All I can say is your complete and total misunderstanding of Christianity and your paranoia are overwhelming. As i have said in response to a similar post. I am srry you feel that way about Christianity. All groups have idiots who twist and miscommunicate ideas and turn something wonderful and beautiful into something ugly and profane. If all I had was satanist to vote for, I would do what I have done the last three presidential elections, I would vote for my wife. No problem. I have been in many situations where I was surrounded by people who I completely disagreed with. I survived and even thrived, so I just don't buy into the victom mentality that I hear from so many on this blog. I have never in my life been around a Christian that prays for the death of another person or race or group, me personally. I have heard idiots on TV do it, but I think they are nut jobs.
          I also wonder what takes a person to a townhall meeting on a regular basis, but the government just makes me angry, so I tend to stay away from those types of meetings. You should try it.

          May 21, 2014 at 8:36 am |
  2. Ally


    May 17, 2014 at 7:07 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.