Conservative Justices Rewrite The Meaning Of Government-Sanctioned Prayer

First, a little story:

Two neighbors lived peacefully in a small town. One was a committed atheist and the other a committed evangelical Christian.

It happened that the atheist needed an important favor from his Christian neighbor. The atheist asked if he might come over to the Christian’s house and talk to him about it. “Sure,” said the Christian, “be here tomorrow at 10 o’clock. But I want you to know that I will have a preacher here when you come.” The atheist thought about it for a minute. Did he really want to endure the presence of a preacher? Did he really want to subject himself to what he knew was coming? But the favor he needed was so important that he thought it would be worth it. “Okay,” said the atheist, “I’ll be there.”

The atheist arrived at the Christian’s house on time and was welcomed inside. Before the two neighbors talked about the great favor the atheist needed, the Christian asked the preacher to pray. Here’s what the preacher began to pray:

Heavenly Father, please bless these two men and give them wisdom to do the right thing today. We recognize that your son Jesus came to save us from all unrighteousness and we thank you for sending him to die on the cross for us. 

Obviously the atheist was very uncomfortable with the preacher and his prayer. It offended him and made him sort of feel hypocritical and it also served to bully him. But he needed a big favor and he dare not show his discomfort or disapproval for fear that his Christian neighbor would hold it against him and not grant his request. So, being a practical atheist—he rationalized that his neighbor was a true believer and no amount of objections to the preacher or the prayer would change his mind anyway—he kept his head bowed and his eyes closed and, more important for the task at hand, he kept his mouth shut. The preacher finished: “In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.”

The atheist eventually received the favor he sought.

It so happened that the Christian neighbor was also a member of the local city council. And it so happened that some time later our atheist neighbor was scheduled to appear before the council in order to request final approval of a zoning change for some property he owned. And, of course, it happened that when the atheist showed up for the city council meeting he had to endure yet another Christian preacher who opened the meeting by asking everyone, including the atheist, to stand and pray with him. Here was the prayer:

The beauties of spring are an expressive symbol of the new life of the risen Christ. The Holy Spirit was sent to the apostles at Pentecost so that they would be courageous witnesses of the Good News to different regions of the Mediterranean world and beyond. The Holy Spirit continues to be the inspiration and the source of strength and virtue, which we all need in the world of today. And so I pray this evening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit as the city council meets.

After the prayer, some of the council members, along with some of the gathered citizens, made the sign of the cross, and there was a collective “Amen.”

Now, there are two different endings to this story. You decide which one is more likely in the real world, given the circumstances:


“Dammit!” said the atheist to himself, “It is one thing to tolerate my neighbor’s religiosity in his own house, but it is quite another to tolerate such religiosity in this the people’s house. This is as much my government as it is any Christian’s! And I shouldn’t be subtly coerced into participating in this nonsense.”

Thus, the atheist objected to the prayer before he made his appeal to the city to rezone his property and went home to await the results.


“Dammit!” said the atheist to himself, “It is one thing to tolerate my neighbor’s religiosity in his own house, but it is quite another to tolerate such religiosity in this the people’s house. This is as much my government as it is any Christian’s! And I shouldn’t be subtly coerced into participating in this nonsense.”

But, the atheist thought, “If I object to the prayer I might piss off the council members, all of whom profess some kind of Christianity. And I really need that zoning change.” So, the atheist sat there quietly and reverently and kept his mouth shut about the prayer. He made his zoning appeal and went home.

Question: Should the city council be allowed, under our Constitution, to open its meetings with the kind of prayer quoted above?

Answer: Yes! Or so saith five conservative Catholics on the Supreme Court in Town of Greece v. Galloway

catholics on courtThis week we found out how important it is that Democrats never lose another presidential election and the accompanying privilege of appointing Supreme Court justices. The Court, peopled by five conservative Christians appointed by Republicans, ruled, by a 5-4 margin, that explicitly Christian prayers (the second prayer I used in my hypothetical story is almost identical to one cited in the opinion) are appropriate for opening local town and city council meetings across the country and do not represent “an unconstitutional establishment of religion.” 

In the main majority opinion, one among many opinions in this case, we find that the supposed purpose of the prayers “is largely to accommodate the spiritual needs of lawmakers and connect them to a tradition dating to the time of the Framers.” As strange as that notion sounds to people who live in an age in which a lot of our horrible traditions have been eradicated (should we accommodate the need for someone to “connect” with the tradition of slavery or Jim Crow, for instance?), we also find a strange dismissal of the kind of intimidation that our atheist friend felt in my little story above:

The analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, singled out dissidents for opprobrium, or indicated that their decisions might be influenced by a person’s acquiescence in the five catholicsprayer opportunity. No such thing occurred in the town of Greece. Although board members themselves stood, bowed their heads, or made the sign of the cross during the prayer, they at no point solicited similar gestures by the public. Respondents point to several occasions where audience members were asked to rise for the prayer. These requests, however, came not from town leaders but from the guest ministers, who presumably are accustomed to directing their congregations in this way and might have done so thinking the action was inclusive, not coercive… Respondents suggest that constituents might feel pressure to join the prayers to avoid irritating the officials who would be ruling on their petitions, but this argument has no evidentiary support. Nothing in the record indicates that town leaders allocated benefits and burdens based on participation in the prayer, or that citizens were received differently depending on whether they joined the invocation or quietly declined. In no instance did town leaders signal disfavor toward nonparticipants or suggest that their stature in the community was in any way diminished. A practice that classified citizens based on their religious views would violate the Constitution, but that is not the case before this Court.

You see, if no town council member explicitly said that, say, a rezoning request was rejected because of a failure to participate in a public prayer, then the possibility of such a thing happening is not worthy of consideration. Apparently the majority on the Court assumes that a Constitution-offending city council would vote to turn down a proposal and then attach language to it that said, “We reject it because the applicant is an atheist.” Maybe there are a few public servants dumb enough to do such a thing, but not many.

But more than that, the majority completely dismisses the idea of the subtle form of coercion involved, especially when the Christian prayers are offered again and again as a matter of established practice. Our atheist friend, who thinks the entire enterprise of religious belief is City Council Meeting -Prayer 13-264.jpgnonsensical, nevertheless knows that if he were to object to the pre-meeting prayer, or merely sit quietly while others are standing during the utterance or offering “Amens” at the end, that his request for rezoning might not be seen in a favorable light by the Christian council members. That isn’t an unreasonable assumption. It’s certainly one that can be justified, knowing what we all know about human behavior. But the Court’s conservative Catholic majority said that because town leaders did not openly “signal disfavor toward nonparticipants or suggest that their stature in the community was in any way diminished,” that there was nothing to worry about.

Worse still, the two extra-extreme extremists on the Court, Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia (who can’t even remember the meaning of his own opinions), went further and dismissed the legitimacy of coercion in these circumstances. Thomas wrote:

Thus, to the extent coercion is relevant to the Establishment Clause analysis, it is actual legal coercion that counts-not the “subtle coercive pressures” allegedly felt by respondents in this case…The majority properly concludes that “[o]ffense . . . does not equate to coercion,” since “[a]dults often encounter speech they find disagreeable[,] and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum.” […] I would simply add, in light of the foregoing history of the Establishment Clause, that “[p]eer pressure, unpleasant as it may be, is not coercion” either.

I find that a breathtakingly naive understanding of human nature, or a mind-blowing misrepresentation of how the real world works. Peer pressure by definition is a subtle form of coercion. In fact, here is how Wikipedia describes it:

Peer pressure is influence that a peer group, observers or individual exerts that encourages others to change their attitudesvalues, or behaviors to conform [to] the group norms

Here’s’s definition:

social pressure by members of one’s peer group to take a certain action, adopt certain values or otherwise conform in order to be accepted.

Yet, we have judges sitting on the highest court in our land who have, or pretend to have, no understanding of what peer pressure means or how powerful a force it can be in certain situations.

Writing for the four dissenters, Obama-appointed Justice Elena Kagan (herself a Catholic) presented her own hypothetical cases involving such peer pressure:

A person goes to court, to the polls, to a naturalization ceremony—and a government official or his hand-picked minister asks her, as the first order of official business, to stand and pray with others in a way conflicting with her own religious beliefs. Perhaps she feels sufficient pressure to go along-to rise, bow her head, and join in whatever others are saying: After all, she wants, very badly, what the judge or poll worker or immigration official has to offer. Or perhaps she is made of stronger mettle, and she opts not to participate in what she does not believeindeed, what would, for her, be something like blasphemy. She then must make known her dissent from the common religious view, and place herself apart from other citizens, as well as from the officials responsible for the invocations. And so a civic function of some kind brings religious differences to the fore: That public proceeding becomes (whether intentionally or not) an instrument for dividing her from adherents to the community’s majority religion, and for altering the very nature of her relationship with her government.

That is not the country we are, because that is not what our Constitution permits. Here, when a citizen stands before her government, whether to perform a service or request a benefit, her religious beliefs do not enter into the picture…The government she faces favors no particular religion, either by word or by deed. And that government, in its various processes and proceedings, imposes no religious tests on its citizens, sorts none of them by faith, and permits no exclusion based on belief. When a person goes to court, a polling place, or an immigration proceedingI could go on: to a zoning agency, a parole board hearing, or the DMVgovernment officials do not engage in sectarian worship, nor do they ask her to do likewise. They all participate in the business of government not as Christians, Jews, Muslims (and more), but only as Americansnone of them different from any other for that civic purpose. Why not, then, at a town meeting?

Why not? Because five conservative Christians on the Court said it is okay for local municipalities to essentially endorse Christianity by repeatedly invoking the name of Jesus at official government meetings. That’s why not.

[Photo credit: Laura Greene/HPE (city council at prayer)]


  1. RDG,



  2. Duane,

    Good analysis and thought provoking as well. This religious thing though, especially this Protestant fundamentalist thing, is causing lots of, well, let’s just say hypocrisies. It’s OK to have a prayer for federal, state and local legislators, but not for public schools. It’s OK to have chaplains funded by taxpayers in the military, but not religious symbols such as 12 foot crosses and monuments with the 10 commandments on public property. Huh?.

    Every student of American history should know that this nation was established as a secular government to escape the tyranny of religion in Europe. In an address to the Virginia legislature in 1786, James Madison says, in part “(Ecclesiastical) establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” Ouch!

    In that hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, Ben Franklin put a motion before the Constitutional Congress to have a prayer before each session. It died for lack of a second.

    Article VI, paragraph 3 of the Constitution says in part, “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

    In 1796, president John Adams signed to Treaty of Tripoli, which starts off by saying, “As the Government of the United States of America is not, IN ANY SCENCE, founded on the Christian religion . . . ”

    So, the thinking of the founders is pretty clear with regard to religion even without the 1st amendment.

    Although it has been used on and off since the Civil War, the nation’s motto, “In God We Trust” was not officially adopted until 1956 and began appearing on our money in 1957. I suppose “God” is sufficiently ambiguous that it is mostly innocuous and not worth fighting over. However, I for one, based on the events in western civilization where the idea of God has been repeatedly invoked, do not “trust” anything remotely connected with a supernatural being.

    Then there is SCOTUS. They have been all over the map in dealing with the religion issue. But it’s really not that complicated, especially if you start with the understanding that we are a secular nation. If it involves taxpayers’ money or other sources of public funds, or public property, then religion, in all of its aspects, is verboten. The only exception I would make is for religious symbols used on grave markers in military or other government owned cemeteries. Chaplains in the military and in the halls of federal, state and local government offices, if they are to be there at all, should be supplied and paid by their respective religious affiliations.

    SCOTUS should look to the framers for guidance here. If they want to change the constitution to permit religion, in all of its forms and meanings, there are ways to do that. But the opinion of five people is not one of them



    • Herb,

      You wrote,

      Every student of American history should know that this nation was established as a secular government to escape the tyranny of religion in Europe. 

      Yes. That’s right. But in so many schools today, in places like Joplin, the opposite message is often taught, mostly by Christian zealots in the teaching profession.

      As far as the wider culture, the confusion on the Supreme Court has confused everyone. I agree that it isn’t complicated technically, but because of the strange rulings of the court, and because of some of the things that happened historically (like Chaplains in the military), we are a bit schizophrenic when it comes to religion. We even have the “White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships” for Allah’s sake.

      One would think that the most zealous defenders of a secular Constitution and government would be conservative Christians themselves, especially as the culture moves away from their brand of religion. There is a clear danger to the conservative Christian message because it will necessarily have to be expressed less offensively (and less literally), as attempts are made to wedge it into official government activities in ways that are acceptable to the masses and the various courts involved.


      Liked by 1 person

  3. I second Juan Don’s approval, Duane.

    Kagan has the issue of peer pressure exactly right. She appropriately limits her comments to the scope of the case before the court, i.e., religious overreach in a government setting. History is clear on the bloody nature of government establishment of religion. Ireland’s experience with the English is the one most prominent in my memory. But I think the Town of Greece divided decision will cause more damage than merely emboldening fundamentalists to impose their beliefs in government settings. It happens in social settings as well and while not proscribed, it is, I submit, contrary to the spirit and intent of the First Amendment.

    Last night I attended a basketball game in which my almost-10-year-old grandson played and before the game the umpire gathered the children together and said a prayer, ending with, “And in Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.” I’m sure this was fine with the majority of those attending but I couldn’t help but wonder, how many of the kids were Jewish, or Buddhist, or even Muslim? If there were any, you couldn’t tell by how they acted – they were all properly respectful. Children know, probably more acutely than adults, what it means to be different in a peer group.

    Our constitutional First Amendment is unique in the world, so far as I am aware. Even hate speech has been protected because previous courts have recognized that control of opinion is contrary to a fundamental right of expression. This latest decision undercuts that long-cherished understanding and I fear that it will be further eroded if conservatives regain the right to appoint more like Scalia and Thomas.

    From, interestingly enough, the quotation of the day from our own Joplin Globe:

    The tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends is the course of all religious fanaticism. – Reinhold Niebuhr, theologian

    As I read that, I thought not only of the Town of Greece decision, but also of the Clivin Bundy affair, the Donald Sterling controversy, and Nigeria’s own Boko Haram who are kidnapping and murdering in the name of Islam. I think we are nearer the edge of backsliding than anyone can imagine. Reminds me of yet another quote:

    When you look into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you. – Friedrich Nietzsche


    • That team prayer thing still goes on in college, sad to say. I too wonder what the kids from different faith traditions, or without any faith tradition, are thinking. As far as I’m concerned, it cheapens the whole enterprise of religious belief to offer prayers so publicly and in-your-face. But as we know (and Jesus recognized, too) a lot of religion is for dough and for show.


  4. Correction: make that, ” . . . the source of all religious fanaticism.”


    • Jim, you said, “replacing the Missouri income tax with a sales tax is regressive to the extreme.” It is so extreme that I can’t imagine a majority of even Republicans going along with it for our state, but then I am wildly optimistic. They may prove me wrong before it is over.


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