The Buck Stops Here
A First Amendment mid-air collision has fallen on the U.S. Supreme Court that asks whether Christian-only prayer should be allowed at public meetings.
The court will announce a decision in June which will essentially answer which First Amendment right of two applications is strongest.
Is it infringing on a person’s First Amendment religious rights to allow a Christian prayer to start a public meeting, or is that prayer a simple First Amendment exercise in freedom of speech that takes precedence?
The case stems from an atheist and a Jew who questioned the legality of a Christian-only prayer before meetings of the Greece, N.Y. town board.
In earlier rulings, the court has said that prayer before public meetings is okay, but that government boards can’t endorse a specific religion.
The lawsuit is asking that the Greece town board’s prayer be generic and not endorse or mention Jesus Christ. It seems the current Supreme Court could lean on that decision, but members last week asked the question that clouds the matter further.
That question is: how can we regulate what someone can or can’t say when using a religious tone at a public meeting? How can public prayer rules be set that will mollify Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Muslims and atheists simultaneously? It was the court’s way of saying, thanks folks, no matter what we do here, we’re going to get villified.
I have listened to Christian prayers before city and county board meetings for almost 40 years now.
Those prayers have been pretty much like the invocation read before every Louisiana City Council meeting by councilman Russell Stephens.
They are generally under one minute long unless there is a statement to be made about a recent tragedy. I don’t have a problem with the practice because it can be handled correctly with brevity and other religions in mind.
When I live in a predominantly Christian area like this one, I understand where the prayer is coming from and that there is not intention to slight or ignore others.
However, I was bothered by a supposed prayer to open a meeting when I worked in California.
Instead of giving a short prayer, a council member took five minutes to extol the virtues and values of his particular church. I thought he had stepped over the line of fairness at that point, not to mention the separation of church and state.
It’s one thing to ask for peace and guidance for a few moments before a meeting. It’s another to use a public meeting lectern as a pulpit.
One of the inherent problems for the court is that free speech does not mean politically correct speech. I don’t like what I see and hear all the time, but to seek its banishment whittles away at the First Amendment’s foundation.
The First Amendment does not say that anyone is free to say anything, unless they offend me.
As I’ve said before, free speech also means you have the right to say something completely stupid or inaccurate. That’s because one person’s strong belief can be another person’s lie.
Ruling that a generic prayer to open a public meeting from a board member or local minister, rabbi or priest might be the prudent thing for the court to decide. That way, public bodies could allow religious expression during invocations from a broad spectrum of believers while not endorsing one particular dogma.
It would also keep the lawsuits, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists at bay in places where folks are truly concerned about the matter. Everybody gets their turn but no one can turn it into an advertisement for their religion.
But then again, isn’t that the kind of excess that freedom of speech allows?
The perception that Supreme Court justices have been making decisions for years based on their personal beliefs and not the legal questions at hand could make the ruling a political firestorm.
I’m just glad I’m not on the Supreme Court.