Balkinization: A Return to Mere Toleration?:
by Douglas Laycock
George Washington famously said that America had advanced beyond toleration. Toleration was the practice of one dominant religion tolerating the others. Washington thought that our guarantees of religious liberty put all religions on an equal footing. But Monday’s opinion indicates a return to mere toleration. Christians are the majority in Greece, so they control the meetings, and they can make everyone else submit to a brief Christian prayer service as a condition of speaking to the Town Board. Other religions will be tolerated, but they won’t be respected or treated equally.
The Court said that prayers at government meetings cannot be used to proselytize. But then it said that prayers that spelled out the Christian plan of salvation were not proselytizing. If these prayers were not proselytizing, then nothing short of explicit calls for conversion is out of bounds. And even explicit calls for conversion are acceptable if they don’t happen too often, because the Court also said that occasional violations should be disregarded.
The Court also said that no one is coerced to participate in these prayers. That holding simply denies human experience. Of course we all feel pressure to go along with the group, and especially so on matters that are obviously important to the group. And of course no one wants to irritate the members of the city council just before standing up to ask for something those members can grant or deny.
Seven times in the majority opinion, the Court characterized the prayers, the purpose of the prayers, or the portion of the meeting in which the prayers were offered, as “ceremonial.” Prayers about the saving sacrifice of Christ on the cross are not “ceremonial.” Christians, more than anyone, should be offended by that characterization.Douglas Laycock represented the plaintiffs in Town of Greece v. Galloway. He is the Robert E. Scott Distinguished Professor of Law and Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.
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