The Supreme Court in the Town of Greece v. Galloway case held on Monday that municipal prayers do not violate the Establishment Clause. It was a win in a culture where the efforts to remove all aspects of "religion" from the public square seem to be gaining the upper hand. The recognition that faith and religion matter to people outside of the place where they worship is a step in the right direction.
However, many reading the decision or hearing the news may not realize that there are thoughtful Christians and religious liberty advocates on both sides of this debate. So although many of our friends and allies are celebrating the decision, others think this decision is harmful.
In recap, the Town of Greece allowed community members representing various faith groups to offer prayer before its town council meetings, but two citizens challenged the practice. The Second Circuit held the practice unconstitutional, but was overruled by the High Court.
In writing for a conservative majority, Justice Kennedy said, "The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent, rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers."
Our friends on the other side of this argument, including Professor Carl Esbeck, believe that governmental prayer is harmful. He asks, in this Christianity Today article, whether we have "rendered unto Caesar a franchise to pray, otherwise thought to be a privilege of conversing with God that we ascribe to his followers?" He also goes on to warn us that "what shouldn't be done is to harness the government to do the job of the church."
It is good to have a difference in opinion, but Kennedy is right in my humble opinion. The right to believe and act on the belief in a higher power should be protected. It is just as harmful to force someone to pray, who doesn't believe in God, as it is to deny a believer the opportunity to pray to their God.
Thankfully, not only do we have the Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment, we also have a Free Speech provision. Our founders understood that the right to speak is more important than the right to only hear what we want to hear, which is the principle underlying the dissent.