Obama Administration Comes Out in Favor of Prayer at Local Government Meetings

Moving further to the right on religious freedom than Sandra Day O'Connor (Source: White House)

Moving further to the right on religious freedom than Sandra Day O’Connor (Source: White House)

The Obama administration and Congressional Republicans have finally found something both can agree. It won’t solve any of the nation’s vexing problems from abortion to same-sex marriage or the federal debt, but it might open a pandora’s box to a new set of controversies.

The Supeme Court has agreed to hear a lawsuit involving the city of Greece, New York, and prayer at a town council meeting. The Los Angeles Times explained the background to this case:  

Last year, a federal appeals court ruled that the town of Greece, N.Y., near Rochester, had crossed the line and violated the 1st Amendment’s ban on an “establishment of religion.” For years, the town supervisor had invited a local minister to deliver an opening prayer at the council’s monthly meeting. Members of the audience were encouraged to join in the prayers.

Two residents, one Jewish and one an atheist, had complained for several years that the prayers were offensive and inappropriate. Until they sued in 2008, only Christians had been invited to lead the prayers.

Looked at through the eyes of a “reasonable observer,” the town’s prayer policy “must be viewed as an endorsement of … a Christian viewpoint,” the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals said in ruling against the town.

Greece appealed the ruling. Joined by 23 state Attorney Generals and 85 members of Congress, almost entirely Republican, the Obama administration has filed an amicus brief in favor of allowing public prayers at local government meetings. This case threatens to upend a set of rulings in the 1980s headed by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that limited government’s role on “endorsing” religion.

This matter has been a cause célèbre of the religious right. Of the 23 states represented by the Attorney Generals, 19 voted for Romney. The other four were swing states that narrowly backed Obama – Virginia, Florida, Ohio and Colorado. The Obama administration’s action is what one would expect from the Bush adminstration, not from an administration headed by a constitutional lawyer who famously included a wide assortment of religious beliefs, including those without a belief in God, in his first inaugural speech. Five years later, things have changed. Pat Robertson must be pleased.

The Obama adminstration is arguing that since Congress has an official chaplain and prayers then so should local government bodies. That has been a controversial inssue in itself. Yet as Americans United noted, there is big difference between a prayer in Congress and one before a government agency with a handful of people in the audience.

What these strange bedfellows seem to have missed is that local boards are fundamentally different from Congress or even state legislatures. The monthly meetings in Greece, for example, are typically only attended by about 10 people each time. Many of these attendees are there to receive an award, be sworn into office, or to ask the board to take some sort of action that will affect their lives.

In such a setting, there is a great deal of pressure to conform and it is impossible for anyone who wants to opt out of a prayer to do so without drawing unwanted attention.

The part in the Obama administration amicus that is particularly hard to swallow is their contention that the mention of Jesus or Allah in a prayer at a public meeting is impossible for a court to discern as a religious endorsement of a particular religion.

[B]ecause a court could not enjoin or place limits on the prevalence of only sectarian Christian prayers, the court of appeals’ approach would inevitably require courts to decide questions such as whether references to the “Holy Spirit” are uniquely Christian, whether prayers addressed to “Allah” are uniquely Muslim, and whether references in particular prayers to“King of Kings” are Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. Courts should play no role in rendering a verdict onsuch theological questions…It is not the place of the federal Judiciary, a Town Board, or Members of Congress to compile a listof religious words that may be used in legislative prayers and a list of religious words that may not, so long as the prayer opportunity is not exploited to proselytize or ally the government with a particular faith or disparage another.

That sounds better as an argument not to have any government body to allow prayers at a public meeting. If it is undeterminable, then it shouldn’t be allowed period. Yet, this entire argument by the Obama administration is bordering on the nonsensical anyway.

To argue that the mention of Jesus Christ or Allah is not “uniquely” Christian or Muslim is ridiculous. What else would it be? Hindus are going to mention Jesus? Atheists are going to refer to Allah? This is just a rehash of the same old argument that allowing prayer in public meetings is religious freedom. It is…for Christians.

If the Obama administration thinks that local government bodies are going to open their prayers en masse to Muslims or those of any other religious belief, then they may as well adopt the rest of the far right agenda that cutting taxes is going to reduce the deficit and allowing gays to marry is going to destroy the sanctity of marriage.

It is bad enough to worry about the wolves that want to feast on the rights of others, but at least they can be easily identified. It is the wolves in sheep’s clothing that are particularly frightening because they are pretending to be what they are not.

Again and again, the Obama administration has promised or indicated that it would do one thing – close Guantanamo or offer government transparency, for example – but their actions have been a disappointment. Now the opportunity of religious freedom for all Americans is being shoved aside for majority preferences.

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