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Editorial: Supreme Court got it wrong in prayer case

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan speaks during a conversation with Leon Wieseltier at the Jewish Primary Day School Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Lecture, at the 6th & I Historic Synagogue, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan speaks during a conversation with Leon Wieseltier at the Jewish Primary Day School Yitzhak Rabin Memorial Lecture, at the 6th & I Historic Synagogue, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Last week, the United States Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that town boards in Greece, N.Y., did not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by opening meetings with a sectarian prayer.

In the court’s majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Legislative prayer, while religious in nature, has long been understood as compatible with the Establishment Clause.”

He also wrote that there is historical precedent for “the practice of opening local legislative meetings with prayer.” Kennedy is right about the national tradition, which he punctuated by referring to the fact that the first Congress voted in favor of an official chaplain shortly after approving the language of the First Amendment.

The problem with Kennedy’s opinion is his refusal to recognize the fundamental difference between a meeting of elected officials in a legislature and a board meeting during which residents often ask their local leaders to act on matters of direct personal consequence.

In New Hampshire, you can picture it this way: A Muslim woman is one of three residents in attendance at a zoning board meeting, where she will ask officials to approve an in-law apartment for her elderly mother. At the beginning of the meeting, everybody is asked to stand during a Christian prayer celebrating Jesus Christ, the only son of God. Her choices are to remain seated, which will surely be noticed, or stand for the prayer despite her strong personal faith.

In writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan imagined just such a scenario.

“I respectfully dissent from the Court’s opinion,” Kagan wrote, “because I think the town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality – the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”

Kagan’s sensible argument is that the Constitution guarantees that every man and woman has an equal share in the government, and that guarantee is undermined in Greece, N.Y., because the prayers were almost exclusively of the Christian faith.

“I believe that pluralism and inclusion in a town hall can satisfy the constitutional requirement of neutrality; such a forum need not become a religion-free zone,” Kagan wrote.

The spirit of Kagan’s dissent is fundamental to the guarantees of the Constitution. When a town government presents the appearance of possessing an official faith, it risks marginalizing those of other faiths.

Despite the court’s view that Greece, N.Y., did not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, towns in New Hampshire and elsewhere would be wise to focus not on the constitutionality of prayer at board meetings but on making each and every resident feel that he or she has equal standing.

Legacy Comments6

Please god...do not let me be arrested for going over the 2 minute rule...amen.

I happen to know chaplains that have opened for our State Senate and Legislature. They are quite capable in a blink of an eye to present a non denominational prayer. For this liberal Rag to tell the United States Supreme Court it is wrong is astonishing as the media is constantly running to the court when they feel their rights are infringed. As far as I am concerned this massively partisan liberal democrat socialist democrat mouth piece of a Rag has long ago surrendered it rights as protected under the constitution

Do you really understand the concept of "non-denominational"? I do not think you do, otherwise you would know that opening a town meeting with a prayer to Jesus Christ our Lord only recognizes those of Christian faith and is not "non-denominational". Now what would you say if a Muslim Imam opened a town hall meeting with a prayer to Allah? You would be all over that to complain about it.

your Wikipedia proves you wrong

"...[S]urrendered it rights as protected under the constitution" tells us everything we need to know aboutBestPres. Constitutional protections for that which he approves, for the rest of us one can only wonder. Hard to believe he has time to post here given all it takes to determine, on a case by case basis, just who gets to shelter under the Constitution's umbrella.

Silly girl the courts have often ruled against mouthpieces as they are not the press

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