A few days ago the Supreme Court gave a thumbs up to government sanctioned Christian prayers taking place before secular government meetings. For nonbelievers and believers alike, this was a disappointing decision.
To many millions of people, prayer is an important part of their lives. It can be a meditative and calming practice, and a direct path to accessing the mind and grace of a God. It can be a deeply moving process of extreme intimacy and importance.
Ceremonial prayer, by contrast, has long been acknowledged as religiously meaningless. As Justice Kennedy says in his decision,
Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be under stood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs. The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.
Such prayers are not attempts to secure the favor of a God, they are merely acknowledgments of the fact that some people can’t perform ordinary tasks without first rooting themselves in the mythology of their ancestors. If the prayers were true attempts to contact a God, then they would run afoul of the Supreme Court decision. The prayers, in the context of government meetings, must be ceremonial, or they become illegal.
This state of affairs poses the true believer an ethical dilemma. When participating in the prayer, the true believer must go through all the motions of prayer without actually engaging in real prayer. They must, in effect, pretend to be praying, because the kind of prayer permitted by law must be ceremonial by nature. (Now, this is doubly confusing from an atheist perspective, because prayer is viewed as attempted communication with an imaginary being. The law now mandates that believers pretend to attempt communication with an imaginary being, which just seems a step too far.)
People of many religious faiths might take exception to the idea that they must, for secular purposes, play-act elements of their faith in a secular public forum. Some take their religion very seriously, and to perform prayer cermonially may violate their conscience. These people, when confronted with such a dilemma, might pray for real, not just pretend to. In such cases, even though it will be impossible to prove or to demonstrate, the First Amendment will be violated, according to the Supreme Court.
Some people of faith will therefore have an impossible decision: They can either betray their God by falsely praying or betray their country by truly praying, an impossible conundrum the concept of separating church and state was invented to avoid. The First Amendment was born out of a desire to protect the conscience of American citizens. In this respect, Greece versus Galloway was a very unfortunate decision for religious believers.
Atheists and Humanists by comparison, won’t have it that bad. Would we have preferred to have ceremonial prayer simply done away with? Certainly. We do not want to feel pressured to violate our consciences by pretending to pray. We don’t like the idea that when we show up at a legislative hearing to plead our case that we can immediately be marked as outsiders because we refuse to participate in the prayer.
A different outcome in Greece v. Galloway would have protected the consciences of the nonreligious and religious alike, but Kennedy’s decision contains the interesting caveat that ceremonial prayer must always be done “with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs.” The decision also mandates that the prayers do not “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion.” Finally, local governments must make “reasonable efforts to identify all of the congregations located within its borders” and welcome an invocation by anyone who wishes to give one, regardless of their faith.
This means that the State of Rhode Island, as well as all its cities and towns, must open their ceremonial prayer process to “all of the congregations located within its borders” and this includes, for purposes of the law, nonbelievers. Already the American Humanist Association has started a registry for people certified to do secular invocations. Humanists and atheists across the country are signing up, ready to enter town halls and other legislative bodies with the intention of offering ceremonial platitudes that do not “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion.”
We already have at least two Humanists/atheists ready to deliver ceremonial invocations in Rhode Island, and we’ll have many more lined up soon.
May heaven help those who try to stop us.*