Guest column: On meeting-prayer decision: Lawful, expedient not same
By Bryan Fulwider
On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to Christianity with its 5-4 prayer ruling in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway.
However, that’s definitely not how any headlines I read described the decision. Nor is it how the five-justice majority would have viewed it. And it’s certainly not what most Christians would say. But that’s what happened, I believe. Now for some background.
In 1999, the little town of Greece, N.Y., started creating a roster of local clergy whom town officials invited to offer prayer at town board meetings. Until the town realized a lawsuit was in the offing, the clergy were, without exception, all Christians.
And most of their prayers were decidedly Christian, as well. That’s why an atheist and a Jew jointly filed suit, claiming the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was being violated.
A federal appeals court agreed. The case then went to the Supreme Court. Five out of nine justices saw no problem with a governmental body subjecting non-Christians to decidedly Christian prayers as part of the process of governing.
Four justices viewed it differently, however. And one of their arguments was that prayer should actually mean something. Let me illustrate.
A few months ago, I attended a Catholic funeral. As part of the service, the Catholics in attendance celebrated the eucharist. But the non-Catholics didn’t. In fact, the printed program included a thoughtfully worded “disinvitation” to those who weren’t Catholics.
From my perspective, the disinvitation was an act of courtesy to non-Catholics and a reminder to Catholics that certain Catholic rituals have deep significance that only a Catholic can fully appreciate and enter into appropriately. The Catholic Church believes so strongly in the spiritual significance of holy communion as understood from its theological perspective that the uninitiated aren’t casually included.
By contrast, when prayers at governmental meetings include such phrases as “we” (note the inclusive first-person plural) “ask this in the name of our” (note another inclusive first-person plural) “Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” we’re doing with our words what Catholics wisely refuse to do with their rituals: We’re indiscriminately including as Christians those for whom such words have no personal spiritual significance whatsoever. This robs our prayer of legitimacy and demeans the non-Christians who are present.
I can’t argue with the Supreme Court’s legal decision about the constitutionality of this case. By definition, when at least five justices say something is constitutional, it is. For now, at least. But that doesn’t mean their theology is correct.
When our assertions in prayer describe a collective commitment to Christ that simply doesn’t exist, I would say our prayer highlights both a theological and a behavioral problem. But it’s not the only theological and behavioral problem involved. Jesus also taught that we should treat others as we would want to be treated were the situation reversed.
Five Supreme Court justices — all Christians — saw no problem with the decidedly Christian content of the prayers offered by Christians at Greece’s town meetings. But were a Muslim to offer a prayer at those meetings, saying something like, “We come to you, recognizing that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet” — it’s all but guaranteed that such a decidedly Muslim prayer would cause an uproar among many Christians.
The opinion written by Justice Elena Kagan on behalf of the four dissenting justices (three of them Jewish) demonstrates an understanding of such realities. Yet the dissenters seem not to grasp the dilemma even their call for more neutral prayers still poses for atheists.
The apostle Paul, discussing Christian freedom, stated that just because something is “lawful” doesn’t mean it’s “expedient.”
My concern as a member of the Christian clergy is that because the smallest-possible majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices has declared a practice to be lawful, we as Christians will feel free to ignore the apostle Paul’s warning that lawful and expedient aren’t synonymous.
The Rev. Bryan Fulwider is president of the nonprofit Building US and chair of the executive committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.