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UnknownThe Supreme Court has ruled that the Greece, N.Y. Town Council’s session-opening prayer does not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, reasoning that:

Such Prayer is Traditional and Serves a Higher Purpose: Congress has done it since Day One to encourage solemnity, mutual respect, rational deliberation, and commitment to the public interest.

No Faith Has Been Denigrated: The Council’s prayers do not, and must not, favor only one faith, nor denigrate other faiths (in this case, the fact that almost all prayers were Christian was a function of demographics, and specific reference to, e.g., Jesus Christ, Who Died for Our Sins was a statement of belief, not a schoolyard moment).

Dissenters Should Deal With It: As long as non-Christians or non-believers were not forced to participate in the prayer or assent to its doctrine, and did not suffer any discrimination before the Council because of their beliefs, their mere discomfort was not sufficient reason to bar the practice. After all, adults regularly have to face uncomfortable situations.

There are some weaknesses in the Court’s reasoning:

Tradition and Higher Purpose: What is (or was) traditional — slavery, the firing squad, fraternity hazing come to mind — isn’t necessarily good. And, if recent Congressional norms are any guide, asking God to intervene may tempt legislators to leave mutual respect and the public interest to A Higher Power.

No Denigration: Let’s assume I’m a Jew, petitioning for a zoning variance to add a room to my house. You say that Jesus Christ, Who Died for Our Sins is irrelevant to my case. But I can’t help wondering, especially since the Council has sponsored this declaration of faith, whether they’re thinking … And He Wouldn’t Have Died Had It Not Been for the Christ-Killing Jews. Maybe I should forget the rule of law, build the extra room, and pray that nobody notices.

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Deal With It: In normal circumstances, I have a number of possible responses, not all of them polite or even peaceful, to objectionable views. But, in this environment, dissent is unwise unless I want to risk getting tossed out and denied my hope … my right … to speak directly to the Council, rather than to God, who, in any case, probably doesn’t have a clue about zoning variances.

But perhaps we’re missing the key point, which has little to do with religious freedom and a lot to do with the fairness of our political institutions and laws.

We rightly insist that government institutions and officials be impartial. This doesn’t mean they can’t apply their values to making, applying, or interpreting rules.  It’s simply that, doing so, they must not use irrelevant criteria. They must not violate anyone’s Constitutional right to equal protection under the law.

But simply being impartial is not enough. We go even further and demand that government institutions and officials avoid even the appearance of partiality. That’s why we demand that officials divest themselves of stocks or recuse themselves from a case if there is the remotest chance of conflict-of-interest. Assuring the integrity of public institutions and officials is that vital to protection of our rights.

When a government body willfully creates doubt whether it will treat a non-conformist impartially, it is violating his or her Constitutional right to the equal protection of the laws and gratuitously undermining its own integrity and effectiveness.

The religious majority — Christians in this case — may console themselves that their rights (and possibly, interests) are being protected. But rights, though impartial in their application, are designed above all to protect the minority.

Imagine the firestorm if, in a town dominated by one political party, the Council started the meeting with a solemn Invocation of Party Principles. How is an Invocation of Religious Principles — in that particular context, and especially in a country where religious affiliation may often coincide with political inclination — any different?

Without action against this subversion of lawful rights, this departure from plain political common sense, the Council president’s invitation to Parson Brown to open the next session might as well be:

                                                    Let Us Prey

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