Driving home Wednesday I heard this piece on NPR about the Supreme Court hearing arguments for Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case involving prayer and town hall meetings in Greece, NY. I decided to look into what other sources were saying about the case (NY Times, Deseret News, Fox News, Townhall.com, Christiannews.net, Progressivevoices.com are some of the ones I looked at) and also research the actual court transcripts of Town of Greece v. Galloway.
Rather than give you my own summary of the events, I invite you to peruse the sources above, and/or find your own, and take some time to sort through the issue. What do you think?
I’d like to offer two questions that resonated with me, that I would like to pose to you – please offer your thoughts!
Question one: I would echo Chief Justice Roberts question: what exactly is coercive in this environment?
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: What exactly – since you are adopting the coercion test, what exactly is coercive in this environment? Having to sit and listen to the prayer?
MR. LAYCOCK (for the respondents): There are many coercive aspects here of varying degrees of importance. Citizens are asked to participate, to join in the prayer. They’re often asked to -
CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: They are asked to participate, and — but not in any tangible way. Theysay: Well, I’m not going to participate, and everybody’s just sitting there.
MR. LAYCOCK: They are often asked to physically participate, to stand or to bow their heads. The testimony is most of the citizens bow — most of the citizens bow their heads whether they are asked to or not. So people who are not participating are immediately visible. The pastors typically say: “Please join me in prayer.” They offer the prayer on behalf of everyone there. They talk about “our Christian faith.”
JUSTICE SCALIA: This is coercion? He says, you know — he says, “May we pray,” and somebody doesn’t want to pray, so he stays seated.
MR. LAYCOCK: What’s coercive about it is it is impossible not to participate without attracting attention to yourself, and moments later you stand up to ask for a group home for your Down syndrome child or for continued use of the public access channel or whatever your petition is, having just, so far as you can tell,
irritated the people that you were trying to persuade. (p 36-37)
I understand that there could be, or perhaps were, coercive elements when only one religion was/is honored or represented. But as I understand it, back in 2008 when the plaintiffs first filed a complaint, an effort was made to get the word out that people of all faiths were welcome to offer the opening prayers, and for a few weeks, people of other faiths did (people representing the Jewish and Baha’i faith offered prayers, and also someone practicing Wicca). If that invitation was explicitly extended, where is the coercive element that violates the Establishment Clause?
Mr Hungar made this point during Wednesday’s arguments:
MR. HUNGAR: No, Your Honor. I mean, as we — as we said in our brief, the principles that undergird the Establishment Clause are equally consistent with the position we’re advancing here. As the — as your opinion in the County of Allegheny case Alderson Reporting Company indicates, the fundamental — the core of Establishment Clause concern is coercion or conduct that is so extreme that it leads to the establishment of a religion because it is putting the government squarely behind one faith to the exclusion of others, and that’s clearly not - not what’s going on here. (p 14-15)
JUSTICE BREYER: Do you have any objection to — to doing one thing that was suggested in the circuit court opinion, which is to publicize rather thoroughly in — in the area that those who were not Christians, and perhaps not even religious, are also welcome to appear and to have either a prayer or the equivalent if they’re not religious? Do you have an objection to that?
MR. HUNGAR: Certainly not.
Question TWO: When we “approach the government,” should we, or can we, leave our faith out of it? Justice Kagan says:
JUSTICE KAGAN: Mr. Gershengorn, could you respond to this? Here’s what our — our country promises, our Constitution promises. It’s that, however we worship, we’re all equal and full citizens. And I think we can all agree on that. And that means that when we approach the government, when we petition the government, we do so not as a Christian, not as a Jew, not as a Muslim, not as a nonbeliever, only as an American. And what troubles me about this case is that here a citizen is going to a local community board, supposed to be the closest, the most responsive institution of government that exists, and is immediately being asked, being forced to identify whether she believes in the things that most of the people in the room believe in, whether she belongs to the same religious team as most of the people in the room do. And it strikes me that that might be inconsistent with this understanding that when we relate to our government, we all do so as Americans, and not as Jews and not as Christians and not as nonbelievers. (p 24)
It doesn’t seem to me that we should, or can, leave our faith, or any values, out of our “relating” to the government. I say that for two reasons. One, because healthy human persons are integrated – their culture, upbringing, values, etc interact to form a congruent whole, with each aspect of the self informing the other aspects. To say we can block off or compartmentalize a part of the self is false, or if done, unhealthy and mechanistic. I would argue that no value or outlook, whether that be the lens of faith, or the lens of growing up poor/rich, or having big family, or have divorced parents, or having mixed heritage, whatever it is – you cannot separate that out, or neutralize it, and then call that fictitious, neutral part of your self “American.” Two – because isn’t the dialogue richest if we all bring what we have to the table? It seems like the issue Justice Kagan’s points out is that the plaintiffs felt left out for not being on the majority team (I’m not diminishing this, being left out can quickly lead to discrimination).
Instead of giving this false solution of “let’s just be Americans and nothing else,” as if being American were some neutral value-less state, I think the solution is perhaps more along the lines of affirming what each individual brings to the table, and letting that contribution stand on it’s own merit as part of the discussion, regardless of majority/minority.
That sounds American to me.
Please offer your comments or other resources – and let us respect what each one brings to the table!