Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the case of Greece v Galloway that it was constitutional for a town council to begin its meetings with prayer, even if the prayer was almost always from one religion. This really wasn’t a surprise given who is on the bench, but it changes the standard from prohibiting endorsement to prohibiting coercion (a change which already prompted some groups to push the bounds by promising to give Christian-only prayers).
It seems that the five Justices in the majority, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, based their ruling on the idea that the prayers are merely “ceremonial,” and that they have no practical negative effect on those who wish not to be subjected to them. But if they are so ineffective and innocuous that their presence doesn’t matter for those who don’t want them, wouldn’t that also mean that they are so impotent and useless that their absence wouldn’t be missed? I don’t see why they get to have it both ways.
Anyway, while the case at hand was specifically about town council meetings, I fully expect that the Religious Right will seek to expand this broadened power for government representatives to invoke their personal beliefs in other areas. So, though one of the new tests of acceptable use of prayer extracted from Justice Kennedy’s opinion is that “(s)uch prayers are permissible when most, if not all, of the audience is made up of adults,” I expect that we will see people brandishing Greece v Galloway for further defense and expansion of student-, teacher-, and administrator-led prayer in schools, youth sports, graduations, and school board meetings across the country.
So, now that invocations have a stronger foothold in the fabric of American life, how can we respond? While there’s nothing we can do directly to petition or change the membership of the Supreme Court (though a donation to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State can help fund future lawsuits), there are direct ways to respond.
As Katherine Stewart of the New York Times notes:
Another prong in the assault on the Establishment Clause is to use neutrality among religious denominations as a wedge for inserting the (presumed) majority religion into state business. In theory, “neutrality” means giving every sect an equal shot at officiating prayer at Greece’s council meetings. In practice, the town government has unquestionably identified itself with what it takes to be the majority religion in the area.
Let’s make it more difficult for the any town council or school boards that want to follow this approach.
- Become a Secular Invocation Speaker
The Humanist Society (an adjunct to the American Humanist Association) has been building a listing of AHA members who are willing and able to give Secular Invocations. By being a Secular Invocation Speaker, you can combat one of the techniques of the Town of Greece, which was to claim that they didn’t know of any alternatives to Christian prayers for their meetings. If we make ourselves available to speak at such events, we make it harder for the Religious Right to claim or imply that everyone in the country agrees with them. We can stand up against the attempt to erase us from government.
I found out about and applied for the program the day after the decision came down, and I was accepted the next day. I haven’t been an approved Invocation Speaker long enough to have been called upon yet, but I look forward to the opportunity to give a Humanist message at an inauguration, town council meeting, school board meeting, or some other venue in which prayer otherwise may have the monopoly.
- Use a Secular Invocation Speaker
If you are not interested in being a Secular Invocation Speaker yourself, another option would be to invite one to a meeting you run, if you are in the position to influence these decisions. There are registered Secular Invocation Speakers in many states, and perhaps one of them is close enough to you that you might be able to suggest use of a Secular Invocation Speaker at a graduation, school board meeting, town or county council meeting or other public event.
Let’s respond to Greece v Galloway by making sure that the Religious Right does not get what they want: a monopoly on viewpoint presented by our government.
Featured Image credit: The Humanist Society, used with permission