When the Supreme Court announced its decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, conservatives celebrated. After a 5-4 decision that rejected the view that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the celebration that ensued was really no surprise. To a large degree, because this decision restores certain religious liberty rights and will have far-reaching implications, it was warranted. However, in an attempt to protect religious freedom, the majority opinion, authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of prayer.
In its recitation of the facts surrounding this case, the Court stated that the prayers were offered in the Town of Greece to “place town board members in a solemn and deliberative frame of mind, invoke divine guidance in town affairs, and follow a tradition practiced by Congress and dozens of state legislatures.” (Emphasis added). The Court went on to explain that some ministers included doctrine and scripture in their prayers, which the Court elaborated did not fall outside of our history and tradition of legislative prayer.
The Court reasoned, “The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise of civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.” The Court also stated, “Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that…many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power…” The majority concluded by writing, “The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose.” (Emphasis added).
So what was notably missing from the Court’s recitation of the facts and its analysis outlining the purpose of legislative prayer? When the Court expounded on the purpose of praying at legislative session, it either neglected, or willfully omitted, to say that a purpose of this prayer is to “invoke divine guidance in town affairs.” In fact, it actually demeaned prayer by qualifying prayer as “ceremonial.” But, this shouldn’t be too much of a surprise; the Court did the same thing with Christmas by labeling Christian symbols as “ceremonial deism.” By labeling an intimate act of faith, such as prayer, as “ceremonial,” the Court is concluding that the purpose of prayer is civic in nature and bifurcated from God. In doing so, the Court creates a national orthodoxy that belittles the significance and denies the true meaning of prayer.
Oswald Chambers wrote, “Our ordinary views of prayer are not found in the New Testament. We look upon prayer as a means for getting something for ourselves; the Bible idea of prayer is that we may get to know God Himself.” In The World’s Last Night, C.S. Lewis wrote, “Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine.”
Legislative prayer is not about government; it is about God. Its purpose is not to solemnize the occasion or acknowledge religious leaders; it is to humble ourselves before God, seeking Him and His guidance. When Benjamin Franklin requested that each day of the Constitutional Convention begin with prayer, he did so because he believed that “God governs in the Affairs of Men.” He stated, “I also believe that without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel.” Franklin’s call for prayer wasn’t about recognizing religious leaders in the room or to remind those involved of the gravity of their actions; I think they all were well-aware of the gravity of their actions. Franklin’s call for prayer was an honest pursuit of God.
It is disheartening to see the Court claim that the history and tradition of legislative prayer encompasses “universal ends” such as, “seek[ing] peace for the Nation, wisdom for its lawmakers, and justice for its people,” and that these “universal ends” are “embodied not only in religious traditions, but in our founding documents and laws.” Such a statement further perpetuates the Court’s self-generated perception that symbols or acts of faith are somehow separate from God and separate from our history and tradition as a nation.
Yes, the Court’s decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway is a landmark victory for religious freedom. It is not my intent to diminish, in any way, the significance of the Court using an originalism rationale to hold that there is no requirement for legislative prayer to be nonsectarian. In fact, I rejoice in knowing that ministers across the country can open legislative session with a prayer offered in Jesus’ name. However, it should not go unnoticed that in an attempt to respect a First Amendment freedom, the Court belittled prayer by qualifying it as “ceremonial.” Our history and tradition doesn’t reflect prayer that is merely “ceremonial;” it reflects prayer that is bold.