Paul Greenberg

It's not just the American economy that has a deficit problem but American law. Call it a deficit of common sense.

Here's the latest, irritating and all too common example of this recurrent problem, even plague. According to an appellate court up in New York state, prayers offered by private citizens at the invitation of a town council in Greece, N.Y., represent an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Why, for Heaven's sake? According to that court's "reasoning," the municipal government violated the First Amendment, which both (a) guarantees freedom of religion and (b) forbids government to establish one. Which is quite a trick, but both principles can be respected, and have been over the years -- by exercising that most uncommon of qualities in the law, common sense.

The result has been a great success: America has nurtured one of the most religiously tolerant yet religiously fervent societies in the world. We've been able to achieve that feat because courts and legislatures have kept their hands off religion -- rather than decreeing just how much of it to allow, which is always a mistake.

Now the Supreme Court of the United States is being asked to police prayers offered at a public meeting in Greece, N.Y. (pop. 96,095). The court should do no such thing. But that is the course some of the Supreme Court's less thoughtful members suggested when this case came before them. Why doesn't this town council, one justice suggested, just limit those giving the opening prayer to some nice, inoffensive sentiments that all (or at least most) citizens could approve? Call it generic prayer.

The term for this approach is civil religion, which has its place on ceremonial occasions in multireligious societies. It is the course the greatest of multireligious empires -- Rome -- followed so long and so successfully. To quote Gibbon's history of that empire's decline and eventual fall: "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord." It sounds familiar, at least to an American.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.