Supreme Court's prayer ruling: Does it allow Satanists' invocations, too?

The US Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution allows for public prayer at town meetings is opening a wider cultural skirmish over what qualifies as an appropriate public invocation.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP/File
Visitors walk on the steps of the US Supreme Court in Washington, April 26. The recent Supreme Court ruling that the Constitution allows for public prayer at town meetings is opening a wider debate over what qualifies as an appropriate public invocation.

Now that the US Supreme Court has ruled that sectarian content is permissible within America’s longstanding tradition of public invocations and official prayer, other Americans, including Satanists and secular humanists, are hoping to use the ruling to make a case for their own public prayers at the start of official government gatherings.

One outcome of Monday’s ruling is to raise the stakes in the nation’s ongoing culture war over the place of religion in modern public life, opening a proverbial Pandora’s box when it comes to the proper theological parameters for official religious expression, many legal observers say.

For the most part, public invocations have in the past been inclusively generic or discreetly vague – a common-sense nod to cultural and religious diversity while continuing a centuries-old civic tradition. But two residents in a small town in upstate New York – one Jewish and the other an atheist – objected to the explicit Christian doctrines being invoked during their town’s official gatherings. They sued, saying they felt compelled to participate in Christian worship.

The Supreme Court, however, judged that even prayers with specific religious content – such as invoking the name of Jesus Christ – are permitted by the Constitution.

“Our tradition assumes that adult citizens firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the high court’s 5-to-4 majority opinion.

In fact, the high court said government officials shouldn’t be censoring the content of any public prayer, suggesting that they must only make a good-faith effort to reach out to anyone wishing to express their faith or creed during government meetings.  

But scholars note that Monday’s ruling reveals an ongoing tension between the secular ideals of tolerance and neutrality in the public sphere and the hard-edged religious beliefs of certain faiths. Instead of fostering tolerance, they say, it may have added fuel to the flames of a culture war that continues to rage.

“Particularly in light of the still-hazy standards for judging the appropriateness of prayer at legislative sessions, as well as the Supreme Court's insistence that the prayer does not need to be non-sectarian, it seems quite likely that secularists, members of fringe religious groups, and perhaps even Satanists will begin clamoring for the microphone,” e-mails B. Jessie Hill, professor and associate dean at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland.

Indeed, after Monday’s ruling, the American Humanist Association announced it would launch a program to provide resources for local secularists seeking to join the legislative prayer practice in their communities.

“We want to let it be known that we are part of the public, and that lawmakers need to know that we are part of their constituency, and that by participating in invocations we can do that,” says David Niose, legal director at the American Humanist Association in Washington, D.C. “You don’t have to be a Christian to give an invocation, you don’t even have to be theistic to give an invocation. You can be a secular humanist and help to kick off the meeting with a solemn moment or two.”

After Oklahoma permitted a statue of the Ten Commandments to be placed on state capitol grounds in 2012, a group of Satan worshipers asked the Oklahoma Capitol Preservation Commission for permission to place a bronze statue of Baphomet, a “Sabbatic goat” image with roots in the Inquisition and now a symbol of Satanism, near its Judeo-Christian rival.

The commission has also been deluged with statue requests from Hindus, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and even Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. The government commission has since put a moratorium on all requests, and has withheld decisions on additional monuments while the ACLU and even religious groups press ahead with lawsuits in state court to have the Ten Commandments monument removed.

Still, Monday’s decision contains a subtle but significant contradiction, legal scholars say. On one hand, the Supreme Court clearly stated that government officials may not censor the content of official religious expressions of a civic community.   

“The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech,” wrote Justice Kennedy. “Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian.”

On the other hand, just after saying the government could not censor the conscience of a prayer-giver, Kennedy seemed to go on to do just that, offering specific theological parameters for official government-permitted prayers, many legal observers note. He warned that certain kinds of invocations, especially those that “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion,” might run afoul of the Constitution.

So, ask some legal experts, will the high court now have to discern which theologies are constitutionally permissible? What if an official prayer-giver’s conscience dictates the need to proclaim that certain religious minorities are indeed damned? And what if those among the “damned,” when their turn comes to offer invocations, feel the need to proclaim what their conscience dictates?

“In my view, this is precisely the difficulty that arises when the Supreme Court opens the door to officially sanctioned religious speech,” according to Ms. Hill at Case Western Reserve. “After all, if one thing is clear from Supreme Court precedent, it's that the government can't allow one type of speaker or viewpoint to have the floor if it's not going to extend the same opportunity to all others.”

In trying both to forbid official censorship and to maintain the secular ideal of public neutrality, the court has invited a competitive free-for-all, enabling groups to offer tit-for-tat expressions of deeply held but deeply opposed beliefs, some analysts say.

“The government is drawing a line about what clerics can and cannot say, and it seems that there’s a problem with that,” says Mr. Niose. “If you’re going to be saying we can have sectarian prayers because we shouldn't be censoring clerics, and then, in the same breath, say, but these clerics can’t be over the top, damning people to hell and there can’t be fire and brimstone in their prayers – well, if you happen to be a fire-and-brimstone cleric, then that might be problematic to you.”

Meanwhile, many religious and conservative groups said they are “optimistic” that the new precedent will make the public sphere free and more robust.  

“I think what the court did was strike an appropriate balance,” says Jay Sekulow, chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, a conservative legal group that advocates broad religious freedom in the public sphere.

The Supreme Court "recognized that a broad variety of speech is fine, but, again, not to degrade the nonbeliever or make fun of someone else’s faith or disparage someone else," he added. "That’s not just constitutional, it’s called common sense.”

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