It's official: Americans enjoy freedom of religion. They do not have freedom from religion. We can thank the Supreme Court's conservative majority and President Barack Obama, who stood together on Monday's landmark ruing in Town of Greece v. Galloway.
The decision upholds a centuries-old tradition of politicians inviting clergy to offer prayers at the beginning of government meetings. Some politicians believe they need God's direction. Others want to acknowledge something higher and mightier than the City Council and Congress, or honor the role religion and religious leaders play in society. Government must respect any reason a politician desires public prayer.
The court ruled 5-4 in favor of the Town of Greece, N.Y., which was sued by two women because town leaders consistently began meetings with Christian prayers that invoked Jesus and God. Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, a Jew and an atheist respectively, argued the prayers are unconstitutional because people in attendance may feel pressured to participate.
At issue is the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which protects the free exercise of religion and prohibits government from making laws that establish religion. It says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Individuals are not required to relinquish their "free exercise" protection upon taking office. Immediately after the First Amendment became the fabric of American law, President Thomas Jefferson began regular attendance of Baptist worship services in the House of Representatives. Clearly he, a primary author of the establishment clause, did not fret about entanglement to the extent exhibited by modern activists who would scour religion from all political process. Jefferson more likely saw prayer in public service as a form of religious freedom he and other founders intended to protect.
Most presidents, including Obama, have invoked prayer and the name of God routinely while conducting the public's business. The First Amendment doesn't say Congress "shall have no religion." It says Congress shall "make no law" respecting an establishment religion. Praying and voting to pass a law are vastly different.
In a bold amicus brief arguing to protect government prayer, the Obama administration pointed out that both chambers of Congress have opened with prayer since 1789 and each have had staff chaplains since that time.
The court majority believed a ruling in favor of the plaintiffs could have only two unthinkable results: 1. A ban of all prayers at government meetings; or 2. A system in which government officials scour prayers of sectarian content. Either would oppress free exercise of religion and favor only those with secular or atheistic philosophies.
To their credit, politicians in the town of Greece quickly responded to the lawsuit in 2007 by inviting clergy from a variety of faiths to pray before meetings. They did not have to, by law, but it was the right thing to do. It is how local government in Colorado Springs has done it for years. Other communities that don't already do so should consider following suit, in the spirit of respect for all religious philosophies.
We cannot have a free country if politicians pass laws forcing individuals to pray or pledge obedience to religion. We also cannot have freedom when public servants are forbidden to merely pray while performing their duties.
The First Amendment does not guarantee freedom from sights and sounds of beliefs that create peer pressure or discomfort. Freedom requires some protection of law, but it also requires tolerance and the personal strength to stand strong while embracing values and beliefs counter to those of a crowd. The court cannot resolve an individual's averse reaction to a prayer. It can, as seen Monday, uphold the First Amendment and the liberty to pray.