Monday, May 05, 2014

In public prayer case, the Supreme Court strikes another blow against American democracy

By Michael J.W. Stickings

The right-wing Republican majority on the Supreme Court has once again struck a blow against the very essence of American democracy, against the very idea of America itself.

When it's not handing democracy to the rich, effectively disenfranchising everyone else, or claiming that racial discrimination is no longer a problem, to name but two of its more prominent right-wing efforts of late, the Roberts Court, dominated by ideologues like Scalia but with the somewhat more pragmatic Kennedy often voting with the conservative majority, is tearing down the separation of church and state, that fundamental principle that guided the Founders and that is as essential as ever given fundamentalist efforts to theocratize America in stark contrast to its founding principles. And this effort was on display again today:

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled that a town in upstate New York did not violate the Constitution by starting its public meetings with a prayer from a "chaplain of the month" who was almost always Christian.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the majority in a 5-to-4 decision that divided the court's more conservative members from its liberal ones, said the prayers were merely ceremonial. They were neither unduly sectarian nor likely to make members of other faiths feel unwelcome.

"Ceremonial prayer," he wrote, "is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond that authority of government to alter or define."

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said the town's practices could not be reconciled "with the First Amendment's promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share of her government."

Town officials in Greece, N.Y., near Rochester, said that members of all faiths, and atheists, were welcome to give the opening prayer. In practice, however, almost all of the chaplains were Christian. Some of their prayers were explicitly sectarian, with references, for instance, to "the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross."

Kennedy's argument isn't entirely crazy, but it makes less and less sense as you consider that what is just "ceremonial" from one perspective may be theocratic and proselytizing on the other, and it's that other perspective that is very much at the core of activist conservative efforts to turn America into a (right-wing) Christianist state.

What's more, offering the opportunity to minority groups (in this case Jews or atheists, mostly) to have their own prayers recited doesn't fix the problem of effectively granting primacy to one religion in particular -- and the fact that the prayers themselves weren't necessarily welcoming, as when they tout the primacy of Christianity and indeed of certain strains of Christianity, only proves that point. Really, how is a non-Christian supposed to feel welcome when a government opens its proceedings with a prayer that refers to "the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross"? Even if they wanted to offer their own prayer, how could non-Christians not feel excluded from their own government, from their own community, by their own fellow citizens?

No one is saying that organized religion, or spirituality generally, has no place in American life. While I personally abhor organized religion, what people choose to do in private, whatever "god" they choose to worship, is for the most part their own business, as long as no one gets hurt, as long as more fundamental rights are respected. But religion should have no place whatsoever in the public space except perhaps in some contexts when it is treated as history and anthropology -- it absolutely has no place where government, the self-governance of free and equal citizens, is considered. Just don't expect this deeply anti-American Supreme Court to defend what is fundamentally American.

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  • For some, it hardly matters that nobody is asking anything beyond keeping the schools religiously neutral -- even commenting or discussing the notion of a secular state as provided by law is "persecution" and Fox News radio Kommentator Ted Starnes says such people are "like Hitler"

    Could he be talking about Jefferson and Madison and Franklin?

    I think it's hard to overestimate the danger of the religious right.

    By Blogger Capt. Fogg, at 9:54 AM  

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