by Jeremy Leaming
For decades Religious Right activists have cultivated a wobbly narrative, championed by pundits like Bill O’Reilly, of a secular America striving to erase Christianity from the public square.
These activists, such as the Family Research Council and the American Family Association and televangelists like Pat Robertson and the late Jerry Falwell, often blamed the Supreme Court for leading the way.
First, they have argued the Supreme Court yanked prayer and Bible readings from the public schools in the cases Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp. But neither of those cases did such things. Instead the Supreme Court in those cases prohibited organized religion in the public schools. In other words public school teachers and administrators had to stop leading students in religious activities. Those cases did not outlaw prayer or religion in the public schools; they just found that such activities must be truly student initiated.
There’s also the annual farce dubbed the “war on Christmas,” where, supposedly, secularists roam city halls and public squares demanding the removal of all vestiges of religion. There are also Supreme Court cases involving these clashes between government officials and individuals bent on festooning public spaces with religious and non-religious symbols. The cases can seem a bit absurd, but a takeaway -- if public officials open their public buildings and spaces to say a nativity display they’d better be prepared to open them to displays of other holidays celebrated during the winter and some secular symbols too, like giant candy-canes or snowmen. For too many Religious Right activists, however, it’s not enough to decorate churches and private homes with religious symbols of the holiday season, they must also adorn government buildings with them and if government officials don’t comply they’ll point to a “war on Christmas.”
Then there are government meetings and activities. From coast to coast there are city and town councils and other government bodies that like to open their public meetings with prayer. The use of prayer in government work has a long history. On the federal level, both chambers of Congress open each day with chaplains providing invocations and a marshal opens Supreme Court sessions, with “Oyez, oyez, God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”
As the nation has evolved, however, and become more diverse, unsurprisingly you’ve had more and more people question the use of prayer during government sessions. And here again, you have a ripe opportunity for Religious Right zealots to complain about attempts to force government officials to either forgo prayer altogether at their official functions or mix it up and include invocations from all kinds of religious groups.
The Supreme Court has touched upon prayer during government sessions, and today the Roberts Court agreed to consider a case – Town of Greece v. Galloway – that allows the high court to revisit precedent on government and prayer. The case arises from Greece, N.Y. where Christian prayer has frequently been used to open town board meetings. As The New York Times’ Adam Liptak reports the town’s prayer policy has been in place since 1999 and town officials have said that people of all faiths, including atheists, can offer invocations.