On Monday, May 5, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Town of Greece v. Galloway that opening local government meetings with sectarian prayer is constitutional, so long as officials try to be inclusive (“Town of Greece v. Galloway”).
This decision should be particularly troubling to all who value open participation in government.
Anyone who’s been to a town council meeting will know the intimacy of the room; nothing you do can escape the notice of everyone.
What’s more, the council’s perception of you is perhaps the most important factor in deciding how they will respond to your remarks. A professional-looking lawyer is taken much more seriously than a gruff construction worker. While this is unfortunate, it is without doubt.
This is why you are not required to share your political affiliation when you comment – it would be unnecessarily divisive and adding an unrelated, partisan dimension to what you say. In front of the government, you are seen as a citizen, not a Republican or a Democrat.
Or a Christian, for that matter.
Thus, the Supreme Court has given all non-Christians a choice today, and a rather unsavory one at that. Either they hide their convictions and bow their heads during a prayer they don’t believe in, or they refuse to participate in full view of everyone, risking their credibility as a speaker.
In light of this, I turn to Thomas Jefferson’s theory of government, who thought quite strongly that it should arbitrate in disputes over policy, and remain unconcerned with religion and religious disputes, (“Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter”).
In 1802, Mr. Jefferson responded to a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association questioning why he would not declare national religious holidays (days of “fasting and thanksgiving”) as his predecessors did, (“Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter”).
Jefferson drafted a response and, after carefully considering the impact of his words with several other politicians (“Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter”) said with some brilliance:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature “should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State,” (“Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists”).
In other words, the role of government is to stay out of religion completely, only concerning itself with matters of action. These were powerful words, ringing clear in his era of persecution.
Thus, I think it’s time for our nation to adopt a new motto, one that is realistically inclusive. In conjunction with the late journalist, Christopher Hitchens, we must say with united voices – “Mr. Jefferson – build up that wall!” (Hitchens).
Hitchens, Christopher. “God Bless Me, It’s a Best-Seller!” Vanity Fair, Sep. 2007. Web. 5 May 2014. Link
“Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists.” Library of Congress. Government of the United States of America, June 1998. Web. 5 May 2014. Link
“Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter.” Constitution Society. n.p., n.d. Web. 5 May 2014. Link
“Town of Greece v. Galloway.” SCOTUSblog. n.p., n.d. Web. 5 May 2014. Link