Some things don’t change. Two thousand years after Paul’s sermon at Athens, Greece is still free to invoke the gods. Now it’s in Greece, New York, where, in Town of Greece v. Galloway the Supreme Court has held that “government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates.” This is thought to be a good thing because “Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing” lends gravity to civic occasions and that prayer “reflect[s] values long part of the Nation’s heritage.” Perhaps civil religion does help what is civil, thought it’s another question altogether whether it helps religion.
Noting that this was a 5-4 decision does not adequately show the depth of the Court’s division, which was accompanied by two concurring opinions and two dissents. The majority opinion was written by the moderate Justice Kennedy, and I suspect his motivation was moderate as well. The motivation behind this decision to allow prayers prior to board meetings in Greece might be no more than his observation that “A test that would sweep away what has so long been settled would create new controversy.” Since so much of the country is still reeling from same-sex marriage decisions, Kennedy might have a point.
As for the law, the establishment clause is not offended if there is no coercion involved. That is, it is not enough that someone is offended by the prayer, as long as there is no govermental coercion. On this pont, the SCOTUS explains:
Nothing in the record suggests that members of the publicare dissuaded from leaving the meeting room during the prayer, arriving late, or even, as happened here, making a later protest. …board members and constituents are “free to enter and leave with little comment and for any number of reasons.”… Should nonbelievers choose to exit the room during a prayer they find distasteful, their absence will not stand out as disrespectful or even noteworthy. And should they remain, their quiet acquiescence will not, in light of our traditions, be interpreted as an agreement with the words or ideas expressed. Neither choice represents an unconstitutional imposition as to mature adults, who “presumably”are “not readily susceptible to religious indoctrination or peer pressure.”
I suppose I should be excited about this. Let me work on that.