Supreme Court takes up public prayer

In a case to be heard Wednesday, the Supreme Court will decide if judges can decide the types of prayers that can be spoken in a government setting. Given the private nature of prayer, and its powerful influence on individuals, the justices will likely bar courts from such government interference.

Tom Lynch delivers a Baha'i prayer before the start of a town board meeting in Greece, New York, Aug. 20. The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear a case concerning public prayers before town meetings and whether it violates the Constitution.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case that challenges whether the city council of Greece, N.Y., can open its meetings with a public prayer. The arguments will likely focus on an appeals court ruling that found the prayers – given by a range of believers from Jew to Wiccan but dominantly Christian – smack too much of religion.

The lower court said those giving the prayers were prone to “convey their views of religious truth.”

The high court may not take kindly to judges passing judgment on the types of prayers, at least the spoken kind that are delivered in a government setting. For a court to impose a definition of prayer – by reviewing prayers and then banning them – could be seen as coercive. It would imply a government hand in how individuals should, or should not, pray.

“Worship is a responsibility and a choice committed to the private sphere,” stated a high court ruling in one religious-freedom ruling. In another decision, the justices have warned lower courts they should not “embark on a sensitive evaluation or ... parse the content of a particular prayer.” Courts are “not arbiters of scriptural interpretation.”

The reason for such judicial caution is that religious believers vary widely in their understanding of the purposes of prayer. Some see them as petitions to a deity, or a plea for help. Others regard them as an expression of inner joy or a quiet spiritual affirmation of divine presence.

Some see prayer as tied to action, such as ministering to the poor or healing the sick. Others find prayer is best done privately, not publicly, to avoid personal hypocrisy.

In government settings, public prayers have long been used to bring solemnity to government work or create a sense of common purpose. The high court has long endorsed clergy giving prayers before the opening of a legislature because of the legacy of such sanctioned prayers going back to America’s founding and because of “a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”

But the Supreme Court bans them in public schools if students have no choice in listening to an audible prayer imposed by school officials. State coercion of faith is a step toward establishing state religion.

The case now before the court may not be decided on the issue of whether local citizens who must go before a city council to conduct business should be forced to listen to an opening prayer. The justices treat adults differently from school children in many church-state issues. And the town has not censored the prayers or barred anyone from giving them.

Rather the court may focus on the lower court’s attempt to analyze the prayers on whether they used “generically theistic terms” or refer to a deity as male. The lower court found most of the prayers to be too Christian and thus impose one faith on the citizenry.

In its court brief on the case, the Obama administration argues in favor of the city council offering prayers but nonetheless asks the high court to limit them to simply asking for divine guidance. The Justice Department wants the court to prevent prayers for private purposes, such as proselytizing.

The high court’s history hints that it will rule in favor of the city council, recognizing that prayer is too private for public control or official definition. Courts can serve justice better if they are silent about the nature of prayer – and the power of prayer in individual lives.

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