Steve Chapman

The United States was founded mostly by Protestants and remained overwhelmingly Protestant for many decades, a fact Protestants did not want Roman Catholics to forget. When Catholics began arriving here in large numbers in the middle of the 19th century, they found that in public schools the majority religion was pervasive and inhospitable.

Catholic children, one historian wrote, had "to attend schools where the King James Bible was read, where Protestant hymns were being sung" and where lessons were "very much anti-Catholic." Catholics resisted, and Protestants took offense. In Philadelphia, the conflict provoked deadly riots and the torching of a Catholic church.

Unwilling to tolerate being treated like alien intruders and second-class citizens, Catholics set up their own schools. That way, they didn't have to have their beliefs denied and their minority status rubbed in their faces.

In the 21st century, American Catholics no longer have to worry about official discrimination and disrespect. That's especially true on the United States Supreme Court, whose nine justices include six Catholics -- and no Protestants.

But the Puritans didn't come to America seeking religious freedom; they came seeking the chance to force their religion on others rather than have other religions forced on them. Likewise, the lesson five of the Catholic justices apparently have learned from history is not that the minority should be protected by the Constitution. It's that it's good to be in the majority.

Catholics are now part of the national majority, which is Christian rather than Protestant and pays far less attention to doctrinal differences than it once did. The minority today consists of Americans who don't share the dominant faith: Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics, atheists and so on.

They are the ones insulted by the town council of Greece, N.Y., which for years has invited clergy to give invocations before its monthly meetings. From 1999, when the prayers began, until 2008, not one of them was led by a non-Christian. When someone complained, the council accommodated Jewish, Baha'i and Wiccan representatives, before reverting to a steady diet of Christians.

The Christian pastors' entreaties to the Almighty were sometimes bland but often not. One invoked "the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross." Another referred to "the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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