supreme court

The Supreme Court rules in favor of allowing prayer at public meetings. / Image: Mark Fischer via Flickr CC

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that town meetings could now legally have prayer in a landmark decision that blurs the line between religion and government. As Adam Liptak reports for The New York Times,

In a major decision on the role of religion in government, the Supreme Court on Monday [May 5] ruled that the Constitution allows town boards to start their sessions with sectarian prayers. The ruling, by a 5-to-4 vote, divided the court’s more conservative members from its liberal ones, and their combative opinions reflected very different views of the role of faith in public life, in contemporary society and in the founding of the Republic.

It certainly is a divisive issue, and one that seems to convolute previous decisions and conversations about the separation of church and state. As those in favor of public meetings commencing in prayer applaud the decision, others are concerned that this landmark decision will open the door to further religious applications in the public sphere. As Josh Gerstein for Politico notes, “The ruling clears the way for legislatures and other government bodies to include public prayers that advance the views of specific religious denominations,” of the ways in which this new ruling might allow for religious propaganda in local town meetings.

To safeguard these possibilities, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the Supreme Court’s conservative majority, “Government may not mandate a civic religion that stifles any by the most generic reference to the sacred any more than it may prescribe a religious orthodoxy.” Basically, as long as these public meetings open with a somewhat general prayer, it will be in alignment with the Constitution.

supreme court rules in favor of prayer at public meetings

Town meetings like these might soon begin with prayer. / Image: Jeremy Buckingham via Flickr CC

Still though, I can’t help feeling that inserting religious rhetoric of any kind is impeding upon the separation of church and state. If I were ever to attend a public meeting where I live, I would be going to contribute to a conversation about local politics and issues, not to feel as though I was attending a religious sermon. Additionally, from which religion would the prayer be coming from, and who gets to make this decision on a local level? Will it be a Buddhist or Catholic prayer? A Satanic worship chant? Or will it be a mélange of all three?

Of course, I’m being sardonic here, but the question remains: is it really constitutionally appropriate to default to one broad religious prayer when our country so champions freedom of religion? The issue of religion in relation to the public sector seems to be a hot topic lately, with other cases setting new precedents. Another major case that meets at the intersection of religion, the workplace, and women’s reproductive rights is Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby, a landmark case that addresses the constitutionally guaranteed rights of business owners, i.e. Hobby Lobby, to operate their family companies without violating their religious beliefs. This case will be decided before the Supreme Court in June of this year, and the decision will set new precedents for similar religious arguments pertaining to the rights of business owners and employees.

What do you think about these landmark cases and the Supreme Court’s latest decision about town meetings being allowed to have prayer?