Last week, the Supreme Court ruled by a narrow margin to protect our fundamental right to freedom of religion in the public square. The 5-4 decision in Greece v. Galloway came years after two women sued the town of Greece, New York, for opening town hall meetings with predominantly Christian prayers. The women claimed the prayers violated their First Amendment rights.
The High Court’s decision was split between the conservative and liberal justices with Justice Anthony Kennedy providing the tie-breaker. The decision upholds the long-standing tradition of legislative prayer established by our Founders and reaffirms that opening a public meeting with a prayer does not establish a religion and therefore does not violate the First Amendment. I could not agree more. That’s why I signed a legal brief, provided to the High Court, supporting that position.
Many Hoosiers will remember a similar fight in Indiana when the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana challenged the state Legislature’s practice of prayer at the beginning of state House sessions. A federal judge in that case ruled religion-specific prayers were unconstitutional, but that ruling was overturned in appellate court.
Last week’s Supreme Court decision puts the debate about religion-specific legislative prayers to rest, at least for now. In the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote, “As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable court’ at the opening of the court’s sessions.” He goes on to defend the invocation of “Jesus Christ” or any other denominational religious figure in prayer. “From the Nation’s earliest days, invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds, striving for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a community of tolerance and devotion, even if they disagree as to religious doctrine,” said Kennedy. Simply put, the Framers sought to guarantee a freedom of religion, not a freedom from religion.