Paul Greenberg

The First Amendment won one this week before the Supreme Court of the United States -- by one vote. The close vote in the case brought to mind the old story about the corporate board of directors that approved a resolution wishing its CEO a speedy and complete recovery from his heart attack -- by a vote of 9 to 8.

This should have been a simple case and the outcome obvious from the start. But before the justices could do the right thing in a free country, they had to go through an intense and protracted debate. Only then did they uphold the First (and most basic) Amendment, the one that both protects the free exercise of religion and prohibits the government from establishing a religion of its own.

But it took the closest of votes for the court to reach that self-evident conclusion and agree that, yes, people should be allowed to pray as they wished before meetings of a town council in Greece, N.Y. That's the perilous legal status of free speech, and freedom of religion, in 2014 America.

The only surprise here was that a court which begins its every session with a prayer, "God save the United States and this honorable court," should have had any trouble reaching such a decision.

But the four dissenters in this case objected mightily to the court's conclusion. To quote the dissenting opinion of Her Honor Elena Kagan, letting folks pray as they wish -- rather than utter some safe, government-approved, generically nonsectarian prayer that wouldn't offend anybody -- would violate the Constitution's ban on government's establishing a religion.

Yes, that's the same Constitution which ends by noting that it was written and approved "by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven...."

Delicious. For connoisseurs of irony, the dissenting opinions in this case are a veritable banquet.

Anthony M. Kennedy, who has succeeded Sandra Day O'Connor as the court's swing vote, gave short shrift to "reasoning" like Justice Kagan's, noting that "government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech. Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian." Amen.

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.