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. tet1953

    Hillary will fix the court.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:33 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      OK that made me laugh.

      I don't know if you are honestly hopeful, intentionally funny or a poe, but I got a chuckle out of it.

      God will fix the court when he brings those he loves to be close to him. We have that to look forward to.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:38 pm |
      • tet1953

        So...you admit the court is broken. lol

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

        The supreme court is as broken as Congress and along much the same lines.

        May 6, 2014 at 12:41 pm |
      • Doris

        This and then of course that corporations are now people. My goodness.

        And then I've never had a good feeling about Eminent Domain, although oddly, that didn't seem to be at all across "party" lines:


        May 6, 2014 at 12:48 pm |
  2. mmarkl2

    You know, I am just going to have to blacklist CNN. They make the "Belief" section, yet there is no science section. They seem incredibly biased overall. If I can't rely on them for objective news, I will just start looking only at BBC News.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:32 pm |
    • G to the T

      I believe "science" is lumped under the "Tech" category heading...

      May 6, 2014 at 12:39 pm |
  3. Doris

    This is what we're dealing with folks:

    Justice Scalia recently: "I even believe in the devil."

    Asked to elaborate, Scalia said, "Yeah, he's a real person ... that's standard Catholic doctrine! Every Catholic believes that," rejecting a suggestion that many Catholics do not.

    But he adds, "You know, it is curious. In the Gospels, the devil is doing all sorts of things. He's making pigs run off cliffs, he's possessing people and whatnot. And that doesn't happen very much anymore. ... It's because he's smart. ..."

    "What he's doing now is getting people not to believe in him or in God. He's much more successful that way."

    May 5, 2014 at 9:31 pm |
  4. dsangiovanni

    We accept you don't pray if you do not want. Why don't you accept me if I decide to pay when I ewant to?

    May 5, 2014 at 9:31 pm |
    • G to the T

      You can. But if you are an elected official that is supposed to represent me as well, I don't think it's appropriate as you are excluding members of your consti.tuancy.

      Why do you feel the need to do an elected official lead group prayer? Isn't there a time an place for everything?

      May 6, 2014 at 12:51 pm |
  5. gmenfan54

    Religion has caused more deaths and wars than anything else in earth's history.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:29 pm |
  6. martylk

    American traditions are being upheld. And if people want to be a part of this nation, they have to accept all of its traditions as well. Christianity is one of its traditions.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:28 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      How far back do these "traditions" go?

      I'm presuming you are not an advocate for slavery.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:29 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      But I presume dispossessing the natives is still OK. That's an American tradition from day one.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:30 pm |
      • nwcolorist

        Your argument is a good example of reduction ad absurdum.

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


      "When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues (or, insert public space) 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 9:50 pm |
  7. sf49er75

    It is amazing to know that Thomas Jefferson, hundred of years ago, was fighting against the same kind of thought as the religious people that are posting on this website today... what a progressive, revolutionary man he was for his time, then, and even now!!!!!!

    May 5, 2014 at 9:26 pm |
    • Doris

      James Madison as well.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:33 pm |
  8. socal4me

    What on earth does a prayer, or “the” prayer, or... ANY prayers have to do with a monthly town board meeting?
    Perhaps a pre board yodel is in order for those who are musically inclined?
    Or, lighting of the honorable cigar? For those who smoke?
    Lest we forget, turning down the heat! And turning OFF the lights for those trying to conserve the environment!
    The key word here folks is “IMPARTIAL” –
    unbiased, unprejudiced, neutral, nonpartisan, nondiscriminatory,disinterested, detached, dispassionate, objective, open-minded,equitable, evenhanded, fair, fair-minded, just;
    Without favoritism, without fear or favor!

    May 5, 2014 at 9:25 pm |
    • sf49er75

      probably praying for a miracle to intervene and balance the budget.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:27 pm |
  9. ksocreative


    "When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues (or, insert public space) 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 9:23 pm |
  10. davembeck

    Finally, an answer that doesn't marginalize those of faith. Leave the room. Boom.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:22 pm |
    • ksocreative

      "When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues (or, insert public space) 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 9:23 pm |
    • greypath

      First . . . Have you read the opinion? Second this ruling marginalizes everyone who is not a Christian.

      The reasoning is faulty. It's based on the idea that the city council meeting is not a captive audience. It certainly is. If you've brought an issue before the all powerful city council, you don't dare walk out of the room. You must participate in the prayer with the council.

      If you do hold to your own faith and leave the room, your chances of being heard will be reduced. Non-Christians have less ability to influence the city council. This is exactly what the establish clause seeks to prevent.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:32 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


        don't bother to try to confuse all these "leave the room" posters with logic, reason, common sense and and articulation of their own history. Their faith makes them impervious to reality.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:36 pm |
        • davembeck

          Nah, just glad anyone can pray. Christian or not. It's freedom OF religion, not FROM. Boom.

          May 5, 2014 at 10:47 pm |
    • G to the T

      "Finally, an answer that doesn't marginalize those of faith. Leave the room. Boom."

      Yes – much better to marginalize one group over an other... oh wait! OR you could practice a secular govenment and NO ONE GET'S MARGINALIZED!

      May 6, 2014 at 12:54 pm |
  11. joejoethedogfaceboy

    I 'pray' that Muslims fill each room and demand equal time. And then Jews. And then Hindus. And then members of every GD religion there is!

    May 5, 2014 at 9:22 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Let's hope the Secular Humanists, Wiccans Santanists and the Odinists all line up to give the blessing at town hall meetings across the country.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:26 pm |
    • Madtown

      Yeah, that's the unfortunate problem with this, or could be the problem. By the time they allow each group their representation and proper prayer, how much time will have gone by? Talk about inefficiency. Pray in the car before you come into the meeting.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:26 pm |
  12. smithbs68

    I FOR ONE LOVE IT!!!!!!!!!! it's time somebody to take a stand against these morons trying to tell everybody they cannot pray just because they don't like it.. WILL I DON'T LIKE THEM SO LEAVE OUR NATION NOT JUST THE ROOM.!!!!

    May 5, 2014 at 9:20 pm |
    • ksocreative

      "When you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues (or, insert public space) 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 9:23 pm |
    • In Santa We Trust

      So you'd be happy for Hindu or Muslim prayer at your meetings? If not, that's how non-christians feel about christian prayer.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:26 pm |
    • joejoethedogfaceboy

      If you want to pray, go right ahead. But you damn well better be prepared to hear the prayers of other faiths as well!

      May 5, 2014 at 9:26 pm |
    • Randy Hanser

      I personally don't have an issue with it and I'm an atheist, but then every religion should have the same opportunity to do the same. I don't care for the fact that religion is being brought into politics, since there is no valid proof that any religion is correct, but if they feel like they need to pray, then go ahead. I will wait patiently, just don't be angry when I sit there in silence and read a book, play on my phone, etc....

      May 5, 2014 at 9:29 pm |
      • G to the T

        I'm not worried about them being angry with me, I just find it hard to believe they won't treat me with some amount of bias when they see I am not participating in their religious beliefs.

        May 6, 2014 at 12:56 pm |
    • purpleiris55

      WOW! I have read hateful comments on here, but to yell at someone who's religion differs from yours to LEAVE HIS OWN COUNTRY is DISGUSTING! And you call yourself a Christian? Yeh, right. If that's the type of "Christian" behavior your PRAYERS get you, I for one, want no part of it. I hope you don't have children to pass this bigotry onto.

      May 5, 2014 at 9:32 pm |
    • greypath

      You can pray by yourself. Public pray is proselytizing. This is the City telling it's citizen what religion is acceptable. Would this council allow a Reformed Druid to lead the prayer? A Satanist? An Orthodox Muslim?

      May 5, 2014 at 9:35 pm |
  13. observer

    Why do Christians NEED a prayer in the middle of public activities?

    Is their religion so fragile and weak that it is required or else it will fall apart?

    Why can't they pray before or afterwards?

    May 5, 2014 at 9:20 pm |
    • observer

      No answers?

      Is everyone stumped?

      May 5, 2014 at 9:37 pm |
  14. educatedatheist

    which makes everyone of you a weak minded individual

    May 5, 2014 at 9:20 pm |
  15. educatedatheist

    Bottom line is being an atheist I couldn't give a sh!@ what you do. .. but make no mistake 100% of the Christians in this country. . AND I MEAN 100% do not live by the standards or the laws that are CLEARLY given in the fairy tale book that you so cherish. ..

    May 5, 2014 at 9:19 pm |
    • smithbs68


      May 5, 2014 at 9:26 pm |
      • In Santa We Trust

        bs, Do you have any evidence of a god, or what happens after we die? Where is heaven located? Where is hell located? Where exactly are the Pearly Gates? It's all in your imagination.

        May 5, 2014 at 9:30 pm |
        • smithbs68

          DON'T worry, you'll find out one day....

          May 5, 2014 at 9:32 pm |
        • In Santa We Trust

          So no evidence – just proxy threats.

          May 5, 2014 at 9:42 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV


        And all caps makes it just that much more true, doesn't it?

        May 5, 2014 at 9:32 pm |
      • educatedatheist

        you just proved my point you ignorant minded fool..... he is your god they are your rules you go burn in hell

        May 5, 2014 at 9:33 pm |
  16. Mr. D.

    I think during their prayer I will start to chant "Separation of Church and state" over and over.

    If you don't like it, then leave.

    May 5, 2014 at 9:17 pm |
  17. smartlawyerloquitor

    “Just keep loving [your enemies]. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load. That’s love, you see. It is redemptive and this is why Jesus say love…there’s something about hate that tears down and is destructive. So love your enemies.” – Martin Luther King

    May 5, 2014 at 9:16 pm |
  18. jaydavid666

    F U C K the Supreme Court

    May 5, 2014 at 9:16 pm |
  19. smartlawyerloquitor

    “Every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country” – George Washington, First General Order to the troops

    May 5, 2014 at 9:15 pm |
    • observer

      "Gouverneur Morris had often told me that General Washington believed no more of that system (Christianity) than did he himself."
      – Thomas Jefferson, in his private journal, 2/01/1800

      May 5, 2014 at 9:21 pm |
    • purpleiris55

      Look who can cut and paste quotes! Good job!

      May 5, 2014 at 9:35 pm |
      • G to the T

        Lawyers are all about precedent, so long as it supports their views.

        May 6, 2014 at 12:58 pm |
  20. smartlawyerloquitor

    “When I went to Gettysburg and looked upon the graves of our dead heroes who had fallen in defense of their country, I then and there consecrated myself to Christ” – Abraham Lincoln

    May 5, 2014 at 9:14 pm |
    • observer

      “My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have
      become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them."
      - Abraham Lincoln, to Judge J S Wakefield, 1862

      May 5, 2014 at 9:23 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.