The First Amendment guarantees the right of religious expression. Less popularly, it also guarantees freedom from religion, especially when government appears to endorse a particular faith in a way that causes citizens to feel discriminated against. The U.S. Supreme Court has an important opportunity to uphold the latter freedom, which is essential to safeguarding the former one.
The high court is set to hear arguments today in a case involving the community of Greece, N.Y., near Rochester, whose government invited local clergy to lead a prayer before each monthly meeting of the town board. The invocations supposedly could be offered by anyone, and no one would be compelled to take part.
But for eight years from the inception of the prayer, it was delivered exclusively by Christian clergy. Often explicitly invoking the name of Jesus Christ, the clergy professed to speak for all who attended the board meetings, public officials and citizens alike.
Two town residents — one of them an atheist — sued, claiming the prayer violated the Constitution. They asserted that people who came to board meetings to do public business were coerced into taking part in a Christian prayer, even if they were of a different faith or no faith. The alternative, lawyers for the plaintiffs argue, was a visible dissent “from majoritarian religious norms.”
In response, the board recruited clergy of other faiths to lead the prayer, but that practice lasted only a few months. The plaintiffs in the case reported they were harassed by other local residents who tried to ostracize them.
A federal appeals court ruled against the town board, concluding that “an objective, reasonable person would believe that the town’s prayer practice had the effect of affiliating the town with Christianity,” even if that were not the intent. Board members appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.
Lawyers for the town board cite a 1983 opinion by the high court that upheld prayers before sessions of Congress and state legislatures. The court ruled at the time that such prayers are “deeply embedded” in the nation’s social fabric.
But the court opinion also noted that the prayers in question — unlike the prayers at issue in the current case — were not sectarian and did not include references to Jesus Christ. Those are critical distinctions.
Governments can offer expressions of devotion or moments of silence that maintain neutrality toward all faiths — and even celebrate the value of religious diversity — while still acknowledging the role of faith in the nation’s public life. This case can encourage official bodies, in Ohio and across the country, to achieve that balance.
Despite persistent efforts to breach it, the metaphorical wall that separates church and state remains one of the most vital sources of American freedom. In the case before it, the Supreme Court can and should reinforce that wall.
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