COMMENTARY | If you are not compelled to participate and are not punished for abstaining, prayer at government legislative functions should not be considered a violation of the separation of church and state, explains the Washington Post. This substantial shift in America’s collective understanding of the separation of church and state will be applauded and abhorred by many. Controversially, it comes on the heels of Arizona’s widely-derided attempt to allow business owners to discriminate under the banner of “religious freedom,” meaning that hackles are still raised and suspicions still fester. Nothing good will come from this horribly wrongheaded Supreme Court ruling.
The Court, in a five-to-four split, decided that mere peer pressure does not constitute an undue burden, meaning that you cannot expect religious folk to keep religion out of government facilities and functions simply because it will make you feel uncomfortable. A prayer at a town council meeting, because it is not compulsory and carries no punishment for non-participation, is therefore acceptable. Apparently the five conservative justices on the Court need a refresher on the concept of “tyranny of the majority”: You hardly need formal laws to oppress when you have mob rule.
Claiming that religiosity in government spaces is acceptable as long as there is only “peer pressure” is a terrible precedent to set. It essentially legalizes religious bullying, allowing extralegal pressures to intimidate while feigning innocence. “We’re just here to pray before the meeting,” the majority could say. “You do not have to participate.”
Of course, we would be blind and foolish to assert that those who do not participate are not judged. They are being judged and regarded, with their lack of compliance, or even eager compliance, to become a factor later on when rewards are doled out. “Did Jim pray enthusiastically with the crowd before the city council meeting? No? Well, don’t hire him for ___________. You know who’s one of us, who shares our beliefs? Bob. We saw Bob praying.”
Obviously, Jim has not been condemned via written report. Nothing tangible exists to suggest that his lack of religious compliance will result in demerit. But humans have memories that need no written verification – Jim will be punished for breaking unwritten rules.
How often do we judge others even in the absence of law? We discriminate against those who look different despite no law suggesting we do so, and in fact even against laws that tell us to not do so. And yet we expect that no judgment or discrimination will come from forcing those present in the halls of government to display or reject their religiosity? All that will happen is people will be forced to adopt labels, some true and some false, when they must decide whether to pray or leave.
The Court has imposed an undue burden on those who prefer not to mix their governance and religion by insisting that they, those who have followed the traditional notion of the separation of church and state, are allowed to go elsewhere. Why should I be expected to leave the halls of government to avoid an unwanted religious display? Why can the religious not worship away from the halls of government?
There are houses of worship dedicated solely to that purpose, which means no group of religious folk should have to bring their religion to the halls of government. Church and state should remain truly separate. It is astonishing stupidity for the Court to assume that the two can be mixed without harm so long as “only peer pressure” and not formal law is exerted.