In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court cited history and tradition in ruling this week that Christian prayers before legislative meetings were not a violation of the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion. “Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government,” wrote Anthony M. Kennedy for the conservative majority.
One might suppose that Christians, the vast majority of religious people in the U.S., would rejoice at the decision, since public prayer is almost always Christian. And I am sure many did rejoice, since the court upheld that legislative bodies can begin meetings with prayer, even if it favors a particular religion. But there are many others of us who recognize and appreciate the fact that our country today is dramatically religiously plural.
Our fellow citizens are of many religions or no religion at all, and for the most part we live together in peace. In this religiously plural context, it is more important than ever before to ensure peace and friendship among the many American religious traditions and those Americans without religion by honoring the separation of church and state.
This ensures, as dissenting Justice Elena Kagan noted, the First Amendment guarantee that every citizen has an equal share of government. Not only does the Supreme Court majority seem out of touch with the diverse nature of the American population, it also seems out of touch with the notion of prayer held by most religious people, which is far from the shrunken and shallow depiction of prayer as merely “ceremonial.”
Heidi Hadsell, Ph.D., is president of Hartford Seminary and professor of Social Ethics. She has published on a variety of subjects, including ecumenism, environmental ethics, religion in Brazil and ethics in a religiously plural world. She is co-editor of “Changing the Way Seminaries Teach: Pedagogies for Interfaith Dialogue” and of “Beyond Idealism,” which includes her article on “Ecumenical Social Ethics Now.”