HOME > NEWSROOM > ARTICLES > Public Prayer: High Court Parts the Curtain

Public Prayer: High Court Parts the Curtain

By Craig L. Parshall, Senior Vice President & General Counsel

Supreme CourtSomething significant happened last week when the Supreme Court considered the issue of public prayer: a few of the Justices gave Americans an unusually candid peek behind the judicial curtain, revealing some provocative opinions on the role of faith and the purposes behind the First Amendment’s religion clauses. The case was Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway and it centers on the practice of the Town to open its monthly board meetings with prayer. The Town has invited, without limitation, members of the public, including clergy, to deliver a short prayer at those meetings, but gave no restrictions on content or theme. The lower court ruled that, despite the fact that invocations were offered from persons of a variety of different faiths, the predominance of “sectarian Christian prayers” meant that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment had been offended. That decision was appealed, and in oral arguments before the Supreme Court last Wednesday, some of the Justices took the occasion to travel outside the facts of the case and to offer up a fascinating, and somewhat troubling, view of religious liberty in our nation.

Justice Stephen Breyer commented, “in my own opinion … a major purpose of the religion clauses is to allow people in this country of different religion[s], including those of no religion, to live harmoniously together.” Later, as counsel for the parties continued their arguments, Justice Elena Kagan picked up on those comments and remarked, in a similar vein, “[p]art of what we are trying to do here is to maintain a multi-religious society in a peaceful and harmonious way.”

No one would deny the benefit of societal peace and harmony. The point, though, is whether those goals are what really energized and directed the Founders to recognize in our First Amendment the notion of religious freedom in the first place. To the contrary, my reading of the historical record tells me that religious freedom was recognized at our nation’s founding as a good in itself. The consensus back then was that a belief in, and acknowledgement of, a sovereign God was an inherent liberty and privilege, indeed a spiritual duty, originating not from government, but from God. When Justices Breyer and Kagan (and I would surmise a few others on the Court as well) indicate that “peace and harmony” is the goal, then we can predict, ironically, that a very un-peaceful assault on faith will result. After all, under the view of Breyer, Kagan, et al., the concept of religious freedom would be ultimately reduced to a kind of de facto social bromide, permitted in practice only to the extent that it can keep the masses quiet. Such a utilitarian idea reduces faith in God to a mere social component for the courts to protect, or not, whichever way they wish, as long as the perceived goal of community harmony is being pursued.

If the majority of the Court adopts that legal philosophy, making the lack of social disruption the ultimate mission, the protection of Christians in particular will necessarily be diminished – and dramatically. This seems obvious, considering the fact that Jesus proclaimed a Gospel that not only saves sinners but can also be religiously, as well as socially, divisive. After all, rightly understood, the claims of Christ are extraordinarily exclusive. In fact, His claim to be the only Mediator between God and man is unique among the history of the world’s religious figures. Of course, inner peace is available to everyone who trusts in Christ and His shed blood; and Christians believe that harmony will someday be the settled state of affairs in the universe under His reign. But when it comes to matters of constitutional policy, neither peace nor harmony should be matters placed on the Supreme Court’s docket when it decides the next case involving the values of the First Amendment.

By Craig Parshall
Senior Vice President & General Counsel, National Religious Broadcasters
Director, John Milton Project for Free Speech    

Click here to read more articles written by Craig Parshall.

PHOTO ABOVE: Courtesy of Phil Roeder.

Published: November 14, 2013

Latest News

President Obama Meets Family of Jailed Pastor

While in Idaho last week, President Barack Obama took the opportunity to meet with the family of Pastor Saeed Abedini, an American citizen who has been imprisoned for his faith in Iran for over two years.

New Step by Facebook Against ‘Misleading News’

Facebook announced last week that it has a new tool for combating “hoaxes, or misleading news.” When users of the social media platform choose to hide a story from their individual news feeds...

New FCC Closed Captioning Laws to Focus on Quality

The FCC issued its first set of closed captioning requirements over sixteen years ago in order to provide telecommunications for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Pai’s Chief of Staff on FCC Partisanship

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai’s Chief of Staff, Matthew Berry, did not mince words on his perspective of the atmosphere at the agency.

Protecting Marriage: How to Get the Media Message Right for This Generation

Natural and biblical marriage between a man and a woman is under unprecedented attack.

NRB15 Program Book Now Available Online!

Get an early start on your daily plans for the NRB 2015 International Christian Media Convention by downloading the PDF version of the Program Book here.

Top 5 Reasons to Create Your 'My Show' Planner for NRB15

This year’s NRB International Christian Media Convention has nearly 200 exhibitors to visit. Maximize your time on the Exhibit Floor by taking a few moments now to create your My Show Planner.

INK 180 Documentary Given Highest Rating by the Dove Foundation

The Dove Foundation has given its highest seal of approval to the documentary INK 180.

Former Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton to Speak at NRB15

John R. Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, is scheduled to speak on Monday, February 23, 2015, at a special event during the NRB 2015 International Christian Media Convention in Nashville, TN.

Prime Minister Netanyahu to Address Congress in March

A day after President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to issue a veto threat against new sanctions on Iran, Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) announced that...

More News