In May, the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is not offended when a city council opens its meetings with a short prayer (Town of Greece v. Galloway).  While this result seems to be an example of commonsense constitutionalism, conservatives should not be too quick to pat the Court on the back.  Many of the guidelines offered by the Court in Galloway are incongruent with orthodox Christianity and should cause Christians to question whether they can participate in “approved” religious practice.

Since 1999, the town board of Greece, New York, has opened its meetings with a prayer.  Each month, the board invited a member of the local clergy to deliver the invocation.  Because nearly all the congregations in this small town outside of Rochester were Christian, most of the clergymen who agreed to pray were Christian and prayed in the name of Jesus.  The prayers often referenced the Holy Spirit and theological concepts associated with Christianity.

Susan Galloway, a resident of Greece, sought an injunction that would limit the town to “inclusive and ecumenical” prayers that referred only to a “generic God” and would not associate the town government with any one faith or belief.  Galloway lost in the district court but prevailed in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, where a panel of judges found that the “steady drumbeat” of Christian prayer, uninterrupted by invocations from other religions, too closely affiliated the town with Christianity.  Greece sought review in the Supreme Court, and the case was argued last fall.

The Supreme Court had little trouble dispensing with the argument that the Constitution prohibits sectarian prayers, observing that the same Congress that sent the First Amendment to the states for ratification employed a chaplain, and that decidedly Christian themes in such prayers were the norm throughout most of American history.

The Court also rejected the suggestion that Greece should have reviewed each clergyman’s prayer before it was offered to ensure that the prayer was generic and inclusive.  Such a practice, the Court reasoned, would intertwine government with religion and would be far more objectionable than the sectarian prayers that Galloway complained about.

So far, so good. 

The problems with the decision arise when the Court outlines certain factors that made the town’s practice acceptable.  The Court emphasized that any minister or layperson, “including an atheist,” was eligible to give the invocation.  (One must assume an atheist’s invocation would be very brief.)  The open-minded folks of Greece had even allowed a Wiccan priestess to come and offer a prayer.  The growing diversity of the United States is celebrated, the Court continued, when government bodies such as the town board welcome ministers of various creeds.  The Court held up Congress as an example inasmuch as it has invited adherents of Islam, Buddhism, and various Eastern religions to lead that august body in prayer.  So, if a public body chooses to open a meeting with a prayer, it must allow every heretic, pagan, and even those who deny there is a God to give the invocation.

A prayer made in the name of any deity, according to the Court, whether it be Jesus or Allah, achieves “universal ends” and elevates “values that count as universal.”  Besides, prayers at the beginning of a public meeting are “ceremonial” and “benign.”  “These ceremonial prayers strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion.”  But constitutional issues might arise, the Court warned, if the ceremonial invocation left the realm of the universal and strayed into such forbidden areas as preaching conversion or threatening damnation of the lost.

Thus, the Court’s jurisprudence of public prayer closely follows its decisions on holiday decorations.  A nativity scene on public property at Christmas is allowed so long as the town mixes in Santa, reindeer, and maybe an elf or two.  Similarly, a universal prayer in Jesus’ name is fine, so long as in the next few months the town invites a witch, an imam, and maybe a Buddhist monk to offer an invocation.

One would hope that serious Christians have a higher opinion of prayer than does the Court.  Prayer is a vital part of the Christian life and is a form of communion with God.  One must come into the presence of God with awe and reverence; it is not an exercise that simply puts a governing body in “a deliberative frame of mind.”

Moreover, the Decalogue strictly prohibits Jehovah’s people from worshiping other gods.  In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul is clear that “there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).  But under Galloway a Christian town with a Christian town council must bend the knee to Allah and various other pseudodeities or demons if the town board chooses to open its meetings with a public prayer.

In light of Galloway’s universalism, governing bodies made up of Christians must either reject the Court’s guidelines and face the legal consequences or simply pray to the one true God in private before the start of a meeting.