Constitutional Law Scholar Tells Why He Is Not Cheering the Supreme Court’s Prayer Decision

(Image: mdgovpics / Flickr)
(Image: mdgovpics / Flickr)

A divided Supreme Court said today that a municipality to beginning its business meetings with prayer did not violate the U.S. Constitution. For ten years a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., has followed an unwritten policy of asking a member of the local clergy to give a prayer as the first item of city business. The prayer exercise was rotated among willing clergy from houses of worship in the town. The board did not review the prayers in advance, but along with others in attendance heard each prayer for the first time at the start of the meeting.

The lawsuit was brought by two local citizens who attended numerous board meetings. Their complaint was that many of the prayers were given “in Jesus’ name” or were otherwise explicitly Christian, and that the clergy leading the prayers would often begin by inviting all present to “join with me” or similar words, as well as suggesting a posture of bowed heads and folded hands. The remedy requested by these two complainants was surprising. They did not ask the court to do away with the prayers altogether. Rather, if there was to be prayer, they claimed the law required that it be “nonsectarian.” I will have more to say about that odd choice for a remedy, but it immediately placed their lawsuit on poor footing.

The court’s ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway is being widely celebrated by evangelicals as a victory. Is it? Or have we rendered unto Caesar a franchise to pray, otherwise thought to be a privilege of conversing with God that we ascribe to his followers? Early in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey draws our attention to Satan’s temptation of Christ in the wilderness. In turning down the three temptations, observes Yancey, Jesus declined to invoke the three greatest powers at his disposal: miracle, mystery, and authority. However, from the time of Emperor Constantine forward the church claimed for herself all three to build Christendom, a development that we now look back on with regret. Ecclesiastical authority was acquired by alliance with the crown. Only years later, well after the Reformation, did disestablishment free the church by releasing the government’s ties on her. In turn, the church fell back on her own resources, bringing a welcomed return to the practice that the church be supported only through the voluntary contributions and willing service of those who find refreshment in her teachings. As Yancey concludes, by going to the Cross Jesus made himself weak and let humans respond to his love. Thus any use of the machinery of government to add power and prestige to Christ’s gentle invitation is not his way. While the prayer policy of the town board does not begin to approach the persecution of religious nonconformists at the height of medieval Christendom, the government-sponsored prayer draws upon the trappings of officialdom and the city’s patronage.

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SOURCE: Christianity Today
Carl E. Esbeck

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