SCOTUS rules that offended Atheists need to relax

It never ceases to amaze me when an activist group of Atheists complain that public prayers by public officials hurts their feelings and makes them feel excluded.  It really is silliness.  It has never been unconstitutional to begin official government activities with prayer, especially Christian prayers, unless you’re going to argue that the men who penned the Constitution regularly violated it.  This is obvious to anyone with a cursory knowledge of America’s founding.

From the beginning, Christians and Christianity were intended to be intermingled with the governing of its citizens as many of the same men responsible for, and who ratified, the Constitution,  specifically the first amendment:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

These same men were also responsible for other State Constitutions; they also — as government officials — prayed sectarian Christian prayers in public schools and at government meetings and public events.  They taught from the Bible in public schools and used government buildings as churches.  This was the case for their generation and many that followed.

Now we are told that such expressions of religious faith by government officials and school officials are unconstitutional.  But it doesn’t seem that the men who crafted the Constitution thought what they were doing was unconstitutional when they did the very same things.

I have to ask of someone arguing that doing what the Founders did when they mingled religion and government is unconstitutional:  Is it reasonable to believe the Founders didn’t understand the document they crafted?  Or is it more reasonable to think maybe you are misunderstanding the Constitution?

Well, the Supreme Court has just ruled that Atheists arguing for pure secularization based on a reading of the First Amendment are misunderstood about prayer at government meetings.

(Washington Times) — A small New York town’s practice of opening its government meetings with a prayer does not violate the constitutional separation of church and state, a sharply divided Supreme Court ruled Monday, in a decision that both sides said could signal a major shift in the role of religion in the public square.

The case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, argued late last year, was considered one of the biggest religious freedom cases of the term. Swing-vote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy joined the court’s four more conservative members in the 5-4 decision in favor of the town.


“This case is the culmination of an attack on the way people pray,” said Brett Harvey, senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, which represented, a town near Rochester. “Scores of cases have been filed challenging the way people pray. There are lower-court cases going on right now, where this case will be used to decide those [cases] … taking up a lot of attention with lower courts.”

Justice Kennedy, in his majority opinion, cited the long-held American tradition of public prayers to open legislative and government meetings while holding that the New York town’s practice was nonsectarian and not designed to exclude any residents.

“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.”


The case began in 2008 when Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed a lawsuit against the town of Greece on behalf of residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens.

Ms. Galloway, who is Jewish, and Ms. Stephens, an atheist, protested that only Christians were delivering prayers at town council meetings.

Town leaders countered that they provided the opportunity for anyone to lead the opening prayer at the government meeting regardless of their religion or lack thereof — a practice that dates back to the nation’s founding.

“The Congress that drafted the First Amendment would have been accustomed to invocations containing explicitly religious themes of the sort respondents find objectionable,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable.”

The sad thing is, that I don’t think Atheists really are offended or feel excluded by prayers in a public setting.  It’s all just ruse to secularize everything because, you know, religion is just fairy tales and superstition.  It’s annoying for them to hear, not offensive.  But, if hearing public prayers is actually offensive and makes them feel excluded,  publicly admitting they are emotionally fragile isn’t a good place to start when trying to claim the intellectual high ground.


  1. paynehollow says:

    I agree that some non-religious types can be overly sensitive, as can some religious types (can you imagine the fuss that some would raise if an Imam were leading school children in prayer at school functions?).

    But, as a person of faith, I find the tendency to praying to God to bless our un-Godly stuff, via state prayers offensive. “God, bless our soldiers as they go and kill the enemy. Give them straight aim and deadly results…” “Oh Lord, won’t you give us strength to implement these budget cuts, regardless of whether you approve or not…” etc. Or even the more benign but still repugnant, “God, help our team to go out there and beat the snot out of other team, leading us to a glorious victory!”

    I’d hope that we would find the better part of wisdom in simply praying in private, not at state functions.

    John, would you find it offensive or wrong or simply prefer it to go away at the state level if our nation became a Muslim majority nation and all the state prayers were Islamic in nature? Would you prefer a less-sectarian approach to religion in gov’t if you were not the majority religion?

    I would, and do now, even when I’m nominally in the majority religion.

    But that’s just my opinion.


  2. I hate to semi-agree with Trabue, but unless everyone in attendance is a bonafide Christian, isn’t it wrong to be praying with unbelievers? And whose religion gets to say the prayers– Mormon? Muslim? Hindu?

    This is no longer a Christian society, and joining unbelievers in prayer is an offense to God.

    • Its not wrong to pray amid unbelievers. The content of prayer at gov meetings isnt much more than asking God’s guidance and protection over the leaders, which is what we’re supposed to do anyway.

      • At civic meetings, you are praying for the meeting of the people there and their decisions, etc. If all of the leaders at the meeting are not Christian, then you are praying WITH unbelievers. And you still have to decide what religion gets to pray!

        • At the meetings anyone who signs up can pray. I dont see a problem with me praying to God to bless amd guide the decisions of the people governing the citizens, believers included.

          • But which religion is to be allowed to do the prayers? Don’t you get it – if you allow the Christian prayer, you HAVE TO allow others!

            • I do understand Glenn. Living in a society with religious liberty means others have that liberty too. You dont have to bow your head for the muslim, mormon, or atheist prayer, you could be respectfully silent just like they should be for the christians.

              • I don’t think we need to open public meetings with prayer. Real Christians can pray anytime for their leadership, etc, and it doesn’t have to be just to make a point. And I don’t want to attend any meeting where there will be pagan prayers or prayers to idols.

  3. “From the beginning, Christians and Christianity were intended to be intermingled with the governing of its citizens”.

    Then why doesn’t it say so in the Constitution? Your god isn’t mentioned anywhere.

    • Did you read the link I put in there citing from nearly every original state constitution and charter? You know, where they specifically give preference to christians and christianity? Of course you didnt.

      The federal government wasnt envisioned to have any role whatsoever with religion, the religious, and their religious practices. It was intended to be left to the states. The issue blurred when the courts blurred the lines between the constitution applying to only the federal government.

  4. I agree with Glenn on this issue. Christians have every right to pray before they go to council, or even gather together outside before the council meeting- in order to pray.
    City Council is supposed to be accessible to all citizens of the town or city, and it seems clear that sectarian prayer is going to make some citizens uncomfortable and feel unwelcome. If this is a council in Deerbourne, MI, for example, with a very large population of Muslims- I would wager that many Christian residents would feel uncomfortable even sitting silently while an Imam prayed over council. In fact, the simple act of asking them to be silent our of reverence or deference would arguably be a contravention of their speech rights.
    Public spaces are no place for institutional sectarian rituals- and if you can’t find time for those rituals before or after official functions, they are obviously not important enough for others to give deference to.

    • I would say that those who are uncomfortable should show tolerance. I support Muslim’s right to pray before their meetings. Given the muslim population you should expect to hear muslim prayers in Dearbornistan. Thats what happens in a country with religious freedom. .

  5. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – John Adams

    Liberty requires virtue in order to thrive, and so I think it’s a good impulse not to try to hermetically seal faith from civics, to insinuate that faith is a hobby to be practiced on weekends with no impact on our daily lives.

    The free society also needs strong mediating institutions between the free individual and the circumscribed state, and social cohesion tends to break down as pluralism increases, not only adding denominations but religions with entirely different histories. Vastly different worldviews can be as alienating as a language barrier.

    We know from 1 Timothy 2:1-2 that we have a duty to pray for the government, and I can certainly understand the desire for a representative government to pray to the Creator for guidance. I suspect that, except perhaps at the very local level, it’s increasingly difficult to have ANY meaningful prayer by a non-Christian body, to which a Christian could assent without any qualms.

    This entire subject was covered a few years back in a lengthy discussion between Dan and myself.

    As was usually the case, Dan ended up claiming that I grossly misunderstood his position, but it DOES appear that, he couldn’t outwardly participate in a Christian prayer for, e.g., patriarchal guidance…

    …if an Amish fella were to pray, ‘Lord Jesus, son of the Almighty Christian God, give us the strength to keep the women in their place, subservient to men, applying the belt when needed…’ Well, I obviously would NOT affirm that prayer and would likely not sit still through that prayer, even if the pray-er was a Christian kin of mine.

    But Dan COULD outwardly participate in an ostensibly ecumenical prayer directed even to Vishnu.

    If the pray-er were to use their terminology for God-as-they-understand-God and they said, ‘O vishnu, give us wisdom…’ or ‘God and Mother Mary, grant us patience…’ I pray to God for wisdom/patience.

    Why? “The object of the prayer remains the same: God-as-we-understand-God.”

    In the same conversation, he wrote, “Doctrine SHOULD lead to good ethics. Doctrine that does so is vital. Doctrine that does not lead to good ethics, I got no use for.”

    Note: not doctrine that leads to BAD ethics, but merely doctrine that doesn’t lead to good ethics. My take-away is that Dan doesn’t care so much how you address the object of your religious devotion, so long as your politics are right.

    I notice that, here, he doesn’t mention government prayer toward a specific deity, but regarding specific policies. I also notice it’s not laws requiring private companies to subsidize abortions even against the owner’s religious beliefs, but policies involving military actions and budgets: people can reasonably disagree on those policies, and they can have quite serious repercussions, but at least national defense and fiscal prioritizing fall under the state’s legitimate core functions,

    As frustrating as that whole exchange was, it did get me to examine and even refine my thinking.

    Then, I believed that it’s okay for me to join an ecumenical prayer so long as I could agree with its entire contents, both the request and the addressee. The addressee was vague enough that I could plausibly direct the words to YHWH — “Creator” is fine, even “Allah” is fine as the Arabic for the generic word for God, but “Vishnu” is right out, along with prayers to Mary and the saints.

    On that score, I’ve changed my mind a good bit.

    I still believe that it definitely dishonors God — who revealed Himself to Abraham and the other patriarchs, to Moses and the other prophets, to Peter and Paul and the other Apostles, and who revealed Himself supremely and uniquely in Jesus of Nazareth — to assent to any prayers explicitly directed to any other deity. The examples in the OT couldn’t be more clear about the offense of idolatry.

    But I now ALSO believe that it dishonors God’s work of revelation to let stand such vague allusions to Him, as if His great work of revelation either didn’t happen or doesn’t matter.

    He’s not just Elohim, He’s YHWH. He’s Jesus of Nazareth.

    He’s not just the Creator God, He’s the redeeming Lord. He’s the Messiah and the Word of God made flesh.

    After joining in a vague ecumenical prayer, I should take whatever opportunity I have to explain that the deity I worship is far more than what the chaplain said.

    And, when approached by a vaguely spiritual non-believer in my extended family, and asked to pray over Thanksgiving Dinner, I shouldn’t feel qualms about praying in Jesus’ name, even if not everyone can join me in every word I say: that’s how I honor Him.

    In Acts 17, Paul preached the Greeks at Mars Hill, drawing their attention to that “unknown god” whom they worship. He didn’t just say that he worshiped the same deity, he pointed them to the Man whom God had appointed as the supreme judge and affirmed through the Resurrection.

    And it’s a common theme in the Psalms — e.g., 116:13-14 — that the appropriate response to God’s blessing is our very public thankfulness. He blesses us, and we bless Him in the presence of our neighbors.

    For all His blessings, especially our salvation, Christians should proclaim our praise of Him, not just to ourselves and each other in our churches, but to everyone in the marketplace.

    Ecumenical prayers provide an opportunity to share what separates us from the rest of the world — rather, WHO separates us, WHO calls us to be His people and makes us the world’s salt and light. I suspect that the American principle of pluralism is being misused, invoked to let us blend in by affirming what’s common with most of us, rather than proclaim what’s different.

    Religious freedom is the right to announce what makes us distinctive, not an inducement to conform with everybody else.

  6. Oh, and if our nation became majority Muslim, the content of state-sponsored prayers would be less of a concern than the right to make public prayers in the name of other deities. Majority-Muslim nations have a tendency of instituting sharia law, which outlaws and degrades other faiths.

  7. FYI, the self-described “low-wattage atheist” George Will has an article today that I think captures the conservative but secular view on the topic.

    That view is entirely inadequate for Christians because it fails to acknowledge God and His revelation in Scripture, about Himself, us, and our responsibilities to Him.

    On the one hand, Jesus taught us to render to Caesar what is his, and to render to God what is God’s, and many have taken that to mean that there are to separate spheres — the city of man and the city of God — but surely that can’t be right, because no created thing is outside God’s authority.

    Note that Jesus pointed out the image on the Roman coin: that coin is to be rendered to Caesar in the form of taxation because the coin is made in his image, but what is made in God’s image? We are, human beings, INCLUDING CAESAR.

    We see that Paul’s thinking reinforces Christ’s teaching, when in Romans 13 he teaches that the state’s authority is given to it by God.

    So it’s not enough to take Will’s approach and consider the state and its citizens. Christians also must account for God and our duties to Him, as individuals, collectively through His church, and even collectively in our other institutions — including the state.

    That does not mean I think the state should open legislative sessions with prayer in Christ’s name — or that it can do so with any credibility when Christian discipleship is an indvidual decision. It may be that the risk of suppressing religious minorities’ free exercise of religion is too great.

    But our duties to God must be accounted for.

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