Since the Supreme Court touched off a raucous public debate 52 years ago by banning state-sanctioned prayer in public schools, the nation has reached a series of compromises rooted not just in the Constitution but also in the Golden Rule.
The government — including its schools — can't force a preferred prayer on anyone, but a moment of silence is OK. And while school administrators can't lead a pre-game prayer, students acting on their own can. Crosses and crèches can mark Christmas on public property — as long as non-Christians get equal opportunity to celebrate their faiths. Live and let live, each American free and able to follow his faith.
Had the overwhelmingly Christian town of Greece, N.Y., tried a bit harder to live up to that standard, the Supreme Court would not have needed to weigh in on its affairs Monday. But in a contentious 5-4 decision, it did, settling a difficult case with a somewhat unsettling precedent — one that might invite a less respectful approach to minority beliefs. The case was tough because both sides seemed to be trying to do the right thing — just not hard enough.
OPPOSING VIEW: Prayer needn't please everyone
In 1999, the Greece town board replaced a moment of silence at the opening of its meetings with prayers offered by a rotation of local clergy.
Unlike other public bodies — Congress, for instance — it did not encourage speakers to appeal to a multifaith audience, which would have been smart, but it did at least leave the words to the clergy, whom it selected from a local directory. All the churches listed were Christian, missing a Buddhist temple in town and several synagogues just outside it that Jews from Greece attended, so for nine years, meetings opened with Christian prayers.
After a Jew and an atheist finally objected, Greece expanded its reach, inviting non-Christian speakers to open four meetings and turning down no one who asked to participate. But the objectors filed suit anyway, and on Monday they lost.
All nine justices said prayer to open government meetings is OK, and a thin majority said Greece had done enough to avoid crossing the constitutional line that bars government from proselytizing.
Perhaps. But as Justice Elena Kagan pointed out in dissent, Greece had many options that would have killed the case in the crib, whether by following a non-sectarian model or by including its Jewish residents' rabbis in the prayer rotation.
Out of respect to citizens of minority faiths, it surely could have done this with minimal effort, even it if didn't have to. And that's the essential point.
Christians make up nearly 80% of all U.S. adults, and in communities like Greece the percentage is much higher. The tendency to promote the majority faith is strong, and the court's decision could be taken by some as an invitation to do only the minimum to respect other beliefs. And that's too bad, because such practices honor neither the Constitution nor the Golden Rule.
The recent history of religious expression is one of accommodation of conflicting views, and that remains the one and only path to mutual respect and social peace.
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