Ever since the Supreme Court ruled organized prayer and Bible study in public schools unconstitutional in the early 1960s, conservative Christians have been trying to re-enter the secular arena.
Take Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). The case, The New York Times wrote last year, "...challenged a 1968 Pennsylvania law that reimbursed religious schools for some expenses, including teachers' salaries and textbooks, so long as they related to instruction on secular subjects also taught in the public schools. Chief Justice Warren E. Burger ... said the law violated the First Amendment's prohibition of government establishment of religion. The ruling set out what came to be known as the Lemon test, which requires courts to consider whether the challenged government practice has a secular purpose, whether its primary effect is to advance or inhibit religion, and whether it fosters excessive government entanglement with religion."
Monday's 5-4 ruling by the Court upholding prayer at government meetings may have stretched the Lemon test.
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the prayers offered at a town council meeting in Greece, New York, are ceremonial and in keeping with the nation's traditions.
If prayer is largely "ceremonial" and "traditional" then it has lost all meaning. One might as well chant "2-4-6-8 who do we appreciate!"
Since 1999, the Greece town council has opened a majority of their meetings with Christian prayers. Two people recently complained about the sectarian nature of the prayers and filed a lawsuit. In response, the town council began inviting members of other faiths to pray. These included a Jewish layman, a Wiccan priestess and the chairman of the local Baha'i congregation. Each faith has a different, even competing concept of God, which dilutes, at least for Christians, the purpose of praying before council meetings.
This case reinforces what the Founders had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment. Having experienced the negative effects on religion from a state church in England, they sought to prevent government from meddling in religion in America. They struck a brilliant balance in the establishment and free exercise clauses. Government would not establish a state church and believers (and nonbelievers) could freely exercise their personal faith (or lack thereof).
Cal Thomas is co-author (with Bob Beckel) of the book, "Common Ground: How to Stop the Partisan War That is Destroying America".
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