By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Warrant Officer Seth Rossman. [Public domain], via W by http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/ce/US_Navy_030616-N-9593R-300_The_Thomas_Jefferson_Memorial_built_in_1943_honoring_the_third_President_of_the_United_States%2C_Author_of_the_Declaration_of_American_Independence_and_of_the_Statute_of_Virgini
Recently, the Supreme Court handed down a decision that many see as a blow to the Constitutional separation of church and state. In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court dismissed the idea that sectarian prayer at government meetings is in violation of the Constitutional separation of church and state. As Professor Erwin Chemerinsky described the ruling:
"Rather than obliterating the wall separating church and state all at once, the Roberts Court's opinions are dismantling it brick by brick.."
Years ago, in another small town, I was a rabble-rouser for church-state separation, joining a small local group in protest of similar sectarian (overwhelmingly Christian) prayers at local government meetings. For our efforts, a local talk show host referred to our group as a "hate group," and threatened to read our names and addresses over the air so that people could keep their kids away from us!
Our group was made up of people from all backgrounds; for me, my Jewish identity and faith were a big motivator in my activism. For me personally, the reciting of a Christian prayer was a subtle signal that I was a second-class citizen in this overwhelmingly Christian town, and overwhelmingly Christian country. It was also a reminder of years of persecution of my ancestors; including those centuries ago, who were forced to choose between conversion and their lives. My concerns then were very much in keeping with the minority dissent in the Greece case; in a small municipality, the power of legislators over ordinary citizens is great; they have the power to make decisions that greatly affect the everyday lives of their constituents. It's not like Congress, where a chaplain often recites a prayer to a near-empty room.
Looking at the Greece decision itself, I can't help but be struck by how the majority skirted over the very issues at the heart of church-state separation that the minority was concerned about. For instance, the majority opinion referred to the choice of almost exclusively Christian prayers at Greece meetings as merely being due to the majority of its citizens being Christians. But that's the whole point! Religious belief and action is not something subject to majority rule; that is the essence of the freedom of conscience that the separation of church and state is supposed to protect.
One of the benefits of being a member of a religious majority, is that you can pick and choose the gravity that you place upon religious words and symbols of your own faith. Many of the church-state cases have included arguments about whether a particular prayer or symbol is really secular. This religious limbo is often covered by references to "civil religion" in church-state arguments. As such, the sacred and sectarian origin is watered down.
It is perhaps difficult to comprehend what hearing a starkly sectarian phrase - such as "in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ" - feels like to a member of minority religion, especially one that has endured literally centuries of persecution and pressures to convert. Similar things could be said for those of no religion. But for someone who hears such phrases routinely in their own religious community, it's much easier to temper the religiosity of the context in which it is heard. You can choose to listen more literally when you are in Church, than when you are in a courthouse or legislative body. For those for whom it is so alienating, there is only one context. It is unfortunate that the majority in this case could not empathize with Americans of varying backgrounds.
For this reason, I - like Professor Chemerinsky - think the recent ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway is a huge step back.