On Town Prayer, the Majority Has Its Way

Some Americans still stuff their faith down the throats of the minority.


SeaDave / Foter

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."

The message received by residents Linda Stephens and Susan Galloway, the former an atheist and the latter Jewish, was that they were different and inferior. "Some of these pastors tell you to stand up and bow your heads to pray to Jesus, and what if you don't believe that?" Galloway asked the Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester. "And if you refuse to stand up and bow your head, you stand out. It's a coercive situation."

In a decision Monday, though, the Supreme Court disagreed, arguing that the council prayers are akin to the invocations offered in legislatures and Congress, which it has approved. But Justice Elena Kagan noted that the two are not the same. The council meetings involve citizen participation, which sessions of legislatures and Congress don't, and the prayers in Greece are directed at the audience, not the lawmakers.

Citizens normally don't have to sit through a prayer to testify in a congressional hearing. But residents of Greece must do that to make requests at a town council meeting. As Kagan wrote, someone in this position "must think—it is hardly paranoia, but only the truth—that Christian worship has become entwined with local governance."

Publicly disassociating yourself from Christianity may offend the elected officials who exercise power over you. If you want something from the council but are put off by the appeal to Jesus, you have to ask yourself the "Dirty Harry" question: Do you feel lucky?

The court sees no constitutional violation mainly because the practice evokes no discomfort in the majority. If it did, it wouldn't be tolerated. The four dissenters include, along with Sonia Sotomayor, all three Jewish justices—who don't have to imagine what it's like to be part of a tiny and not universally beloved minority.

The council claims it is open to different religious voices. But what if it were flooded with invocation requests from Muslims, pagans and Satanists? If the council members and other attendees had to regularly endure prayers they found obnoxious, rest assured, the invocation ritual would be eliminated.

In Greece and in the Supreme Court, a variant of the Golden Rule is in effect: Do unto others what you wouldn't let them do unto you.