New direction on public prayer

New direction on public prayer

The role of God in the public square remains a source of contention and litigation.

It probably won't be the last word on the issue, but the U.S. Supreme Court has narrowly affirmed the right of local officials to engage in ceremonial prayer that includes Christian references at public meetings.

The court, by a 5-4 vote, held that the U.S. Constitution does not mandate that public prayers be addressed "only to a generic God."

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy held that ceremonial prayers are constitutional if they do not "denigrate non-believers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion."

Justice Elena Kagan, writing for the minority, said the court's majority was engaging in "religious favoritism" and predicted that some people might be unhappy if a "mostly Muslim town" opened its meetings with Islamic prayers or a Jewish community invited a rabbi.

However, under the ruling, municipal officials are allowed to invite ministers of any faith to use the same language in public as they do when conducting religious ceremonies.

In crafting his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy noted that those who object to a certain form of prayer are not required to participate and are free to ignore what is said.

"Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable," he said.

Kennedy's admonition was confined to the court's ruling, which stems from a dispute in Greece, N.Y. But his point is one that applies in a larger context.

Freedom of speech — the issue here — implies that people are at liberty to express their views, no matter how odious others may find them. At the same time, it also guarantees the rights of others to disagree or pay no attention at all. Those who contend, as they frequently do, particularly on college campuses, that speech they find offensive is unprotected speech miss the point altogether.

It's never been particularly clear why public officials feel the need to invoke the deity as they conduct public business. But they do. Some places more than others.

Congress begins each day with a prayer. Officials at the U.S. Supreme Court ask that "God save this honorable court" at the beginning of oral arguments. Apparently operating under the theory that they need all the help they can get, state legislators and local officials often do the same.

There's no questions that some people do not like that tradition, and courts have in the past found the Christian prayers were improper. Some day, after a change in high court personnel, the U.S. Supreme Court may change its mind. Until then, those who put stock in sectarian references in public prayer are free to act in accord with their desires.

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