SCOTUS: City-Council Prayers Barely OK (but You Still Can’t Read Bibles in School)

On Monday the Supreme Court handed down their decision on the matter of opening city-council meetings with Christian prayer.

“A federal appeals court in New York [had] ruled that Greece [had] violated the Constitution by opening nearly every meeting over an 11-year span with prayers that stressed Christianity,” according to WTOP, and now the SCOTUS has weighed in.

The majority of the justices has decided it was not unconstitutional for the city council of Greece, New York, to begin meetings with Christian prayer, but it was a typically close 5-4 decision.

That Christian prayer was a matter that was contentious at all is troubling enough, but that the SCOTUS decision was so close is even more so. Had the ruling been 5-4 against prayer, it would have set an irrevocable precedent for the rest of the country.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority decision, “The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.”

And writing for the dissent was the President Obama-appointed Justice Elena Kagan. “I respectfully dissent from the Court’s opinion,” she wrote, “because I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality–the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”

She seems to believe that the non-existent Buddhists and Hindus on the town council will take offense at a Christian prayer beginning their sessions.

She also gets wrong what the “constitutional idea” of religion is. The Constitution does not say a Christian cannot practice his religion in public, and it certainly does not say that a Christian’s practice of his religion is only acceptable if a member of every single other religion makes his own free choice to do the same. The Constitution simply says Congress–that federal branch of the government–can not establish any particular religion. State and local governments can, however.

The other constitutional idea, to continue using Kagan’s phrase, is that Americans have the freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Kagan’s letter indicates the dissent does not know the difference between those two distinctly different words. Buddhists do not have the right not to be exposed to Christianity. They have the right to practice Buddhism, but they have no right to protection from exposure to other religions. I’d like to know what actual part of the Constitution Kagan and the other three dissenters based their decision off of.

In related news, a fifth-grade class in Florida was having a free-read time during which they could silently read whatever they wanted. When one student pulled out his Bible (his favorite Book), the teacher told him religious books were not allowed and demanded he put it away. The school is defending the teacher and the parents are considering suing, as they very well should.

If this case ever reaches the Supreme Court, I image Kagan saying the boy is only allowed to read the Bible if the Buddhists and Hindus in the class also make the free and unanimous choice to read their religious texts. This is America, after all, where a Christian is only permitted to read the Bible if he has express permission from the adherents of all the other religions.