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Why is it about religion at all?

In November of 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of The Town of Greece vs. Galloway, which was characterized as a test of whether or not beginning a public (i.e. governmental) meeting with a prayer was or was not a violation of the principle of the separation of Church and State.  (Note: the case was decided against the town at the Court of Appeals; its decision was overturned, in favor of the town, by the Supreme Court).

At the time the Court agreed to hear the case, The Diane Rehm Show hosted a discussion of the issue featuring Jeffery Rosen of the National Constitution Center, Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and Mark Rienzi of the Catholic University of America and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.  I listened to the program in the car and was not at liberty to call in with questions.  But it seemed to me that it was not necessary to debate the issue at hand in terms of religion at all — that the issue was not as much about religion, specifically, as about government authorities imposing any kind of devotional requirement on those who had business before it.  After all, the complaint was that the very act of initiating the meeting with a prayer implied some kind of adverse judgement would apply to anyone who didn’t participate — that the government was, in fact, imposing a religious requirement on those in attendance rather than merely going through some neutral form of salutation.  That is, the assumption was that the prayer implied something meaningful about how subsequent business would be conducted.  Otherwise, it would be simply hot air and easily ignored.

I wrote this directly to Jeffrey Rosen to ask why the question wasn’t asked in that broader context.  I never received a reply.

7 November 2013

I caught the Diane Rehm show in the car this morning and wondered why no one asked/answered this question. Can anyone there do so?

Why is this about religion at all?

What if the issue was that the city council were all self-styled “patriots” and had someone lead the group in the Pledge of Allegiance? What if someone didn’t believe in making such pledges and wanted to sit it out?

What if the issue was that the city council were all fitness fanatics and wanted someone to lead the group in calisthenics? What if someone wanted — or needed — to sit that out?

Why is this not a simple issue of conflict-of-interest or the appearance thereof?  The people in charge want everyone to participate in something they deem meaningful before they begin their business.  What they want everyone to do should be irrelevant.

The point is, they are sitting in judgement of people’s requests and, before they judge those requests, they want everyone to do something that, it appears, they care a great deal about. It is implied, then, that, if someone refuses to participate, the judgement might go against them because they refused to participate — or, at least, that the presumption would be against them.

The town council has, in effect, set up the appearance of a precondition to an affirmative judgement. What the precondition is should not matter; and a ruling on whether that precondition is acceptable should have nothing to do with whether that precondition was religious or secular.

Why is no one arguing it on that basis?

© Copyright 2013, Augustus P. Lowell

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