SCOTUS Endorses Government Prayer (updated)

The Supreme Court decision regarding the prayer practices of the town of Greece, New York is bad news for anyone who does not want to experience Christian prayers at government functions.

The real problem with this decision is that its overall philosophy moves further away from an endorsement test – the idea that the government should not endorse a specific religion – and towards a coercion test instead, verging on the idea that government can endorse religion without coercing citizens to follow that religion. Moreover, a couple justices took the opportunity to say they would like to see coercion defined even more narrowly, meaning that government would have an even wider scope to push religion. See more specific discussion at SCOTUSblog.

It is not an accident that justices who have experienced the least disadvantage in their lives tend to see coercion narrowly and don’t have a problem with endorsement, while those who have wider life experiences are more likely to think that endorsement slides into coercion and that both are a bad thing. People in the majority – in this case the religious majority – have not been subject to the myriad slings and arrows of everyday life that make one more thing, like your government expecting you to have the strength to withstand public, officially sanctioned disparagement, just too much to bear.

Specifically, this decision is a bad thing for Wiccans because to be realistic, in my lifetime we will not be on an equal footing with Christians, and this decision is all about accommodating the majority rather than protecting the minority. In the meantime, we run a serious risk of being used as cover – call it the “I Have a Wiccan Friend” defense. In other words, if a town council has to get a Wiccan one week out of the year (and a Jew once and a Buddhist once) so that they can have their exclusionary prayers to Jesus the other 49 weeks, they’ll do it, and those 49 weeks will do way more to reinforce the Christian sense of hegemony (we own this town – look at the meetings!) than that one week of pretend tolerance will.

Make no mistake, that one-week-a-year, or any similar plan, is tolerance, not inclusion. I have argued before and will argue again that there is no such thing as a fully inclusive prayer that covers all citizens, so the only truly inclusive option is no prayer at all.

Moreover, it looks to me at first glance like this decision’s details gave small governments a long list of ways to tailor their tolerance so that it’s not too burdensome on the Christian majority. It doesn’t seem like there’s any real burden for the government to be inclusive by any standard, for example. Saying that local governments may be run “informally” is a loophole big enough to drive the “Oh, it’s an accident that we forgot to invite any rabbis” truck right through.

EDITED: Originally, my last paragraph read:

Personally, I will continue to advocate for less appearance of government endorsing religion for any religion, mine included. I would not give an opening prayer at a government meeting even if I was specifically invited to do so. Others may make different decisions depending on circumstances, but please think carefully before participating in this misguided encroachment of government-sponsored religion.

EDITED TO ADD:

I am hearing some good arguments about why we should engage in exactly the kind of prayer that I firmly believe on fundamental principles should not be happening. I am not particularly swayed by the argument from equal misery: If they’re going to make us miserable, I am not convinced that we should make them miserable too. I am much more convinced by the argument that trying to participate in public prayer and being turned away could be – in the long term, on the order of decades – the foundation of a new case to get this crap overturned.

In the meantime and the near term, there is always the possibility that a sectarian Wiccan or Hellenistic or Druid prayer can be so repulsive to a Christian majority that the Christian majority decides not to hold the public prayers any longer. That would be similar to the attempt to install a Satanist monument in Oklahoma to “balance” the Ten Commandments monument.

I am not yet convinced that the potential harm done to others in the meantime is worth it, especially because of the risk of being used for “cover” in the way I describe above. I am willing to be convinced otherwise.

I don’t know how to balance the kind of activism for equal recognition of Wicca and Paganisms that I see going on in many places (military, prisons) with using Wicca as a weapon to get religion removed. How do I take action and try to communicate the subtext “Well, you could just not allow prayers here,” in one context, and in another context take an almost identical action with the subtext, “No, really, take me seriously, Wiccan prisoners have a real need for ministry?” How do we avoid having the kind of wiggle-arounds that are going to be used in prayer-giving contexts (oh, we’ll have everyone in on a rotation, that’ll work) applied to other contexts to marginalize us even further?

As I said, I’m willing to hear further arguments. I’m deeply torn about this matter and expect to spend some time contemplating while I’m away at Fertile Ground Gathering this weekend. That means I won’t be here to moderate comments or respond. We’ve got time. Let’s ground and center and think and talk together before we act.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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