May 7, 2014
In this week’s big Religion Clause case, the Supreme Court upheld the practice in Town of Greece, New York of permitting local clergy to open legislative sessions in prayer. Rather than appointing a permanent chaplain to deliver bland, nonsectarian prayers, Town of Greece selected a different chaplain each month, rotating through the religious congregations listed in the phone book. Two residents alleged that the practice violated the Establishment Clause, because the vast majority of the chaplains were Christian, and because many of the prayers invoked Jesus and were otherwise sectarian in nature. The Supreme Court disagreed, siding with Town of Greece by a 5-4 vote.
The case has been construed as a big victory for Christian churches, and in a sense it is. But Christians and Christian churches should be careful what they wish for. Local governments that adopt the Town of Greece model will need to invite adherents of all perspectives to take their turn leading prayer. After listening to the prayers of atheists and wiccans, as well as other religions, some public prayer advocates may conclude that opening legislative sessions in prayer isn’t such a wonderful idea after all. I doubt that the new case will prompt thousands of local communities to follow Town of Greece’s lead.
When Christian pastors do pray before legislative sessions, non-Christian hearers will be listening very carefully to the pronouns they use. In church and in other Christian settings, we often preface our statements with “we pray” and conclude by saying “we pray Jesus’s name.” This isn’t likely to go over so well before a legislative session, which suggests that when Christians or adherents of other faiths pray in the legislative setting, they will need to be careful to say “I pray,” without presuming on their hearers. It’s the kind of attention to pronouns many of us are familiar with when we offer grace before meals with non-Christian friends in our own homes.