November 6, 2013; Politico


Worth reading is a Politico article on the pending case before the Supreme Court regarding public prayer. The meetings of the town board of Greece, New York begin with a prayer. Various people get to deliver the prayers—not just Christians, but occasionally religious leaders from the Jewish, Bahai, and Wiccan faiths. The township was challenged on the idea that any religious prayer violates the constitutional ban of establishing a state religion.

One idea is that non-sectarian prayers might be acceptable alternatives to religious prayers. Some SCOTUS justices fear that that would put governmental officials into the position of editing the text of prayers to eliminate religious content. Might religious leaders self-regulate to edit religious content out of the prayers they might recite for the Greece town board or other governmental bodies?  Would self-censorship work?  The Court faces some thorny issues to sort through in this case.

It is worth noting that the beginning of each session of the Supreme Court itself opens with the words, “God save the United States and this honorable court.” That sounds like religious content, though not quite as sectarian as one of the prayers delivered at the town board’s meeting that referred to the “sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” and his “resurrection.”

Why raise this issue for nonprofits? The easy answer would be that nonprofits are on both sides of the question in front of the court. The more complex dimension of the court’s pending decision is one of inclusion—or exclusion.

Much of the nonprofit sector has religious origins and many nonprofits are still more or less faith-based. Many gatherings of nonprofits begin with a religious invocation, even though the nonprofits involved say that they will serve people regardless of religious belief. Do the non-religious constituents or clients of nonprofits feel included or excluded when meetings and programs begin with a prayer delivered by a religious official?  For governmental entities, the challenge posed by sectarian prayers is whether people seeking governmental action might feel that government might be biased.

Interestingly, the Obama administration is supporting the town’s ability to begin its meetings with religious prayers so long as there is a half-hour delay between the prayers and the actual town board meetings. Speaking on behalf of the administration, Deputy Solicitor General Ian Gershengorn noted the “240 years of history…[in which] there have been legislative prayers given in the religious idiom of either the official chaplain or guest chaplain, that have regularly invoked the deity and the language of the prayer-giver.” Thirty-four senators filed an amicus supporting the town of Greece, basically endorsing the Obama administration’s position.

“The tradition of praying before meetings of governing or legislative bodies is common all across our country,” wrote Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), one of the 34 senators, in an op-ed. “In the Florida State House, I often took time with my fellow state representatives to pray for the wisdom and discernment to properly serve our constituents.”

Set aside, for a moment, the issue of a constitutional ban on the establishment of a state religion. Do you think that a sectarian prayer at the beginning of a governmental meeting or a nonprofit gathering makes some people feel less welcome or less supported if they were not of the same faith as the prayer-giver? Are there ways of making people feel more supported and included? Or do you believe that that people are generally used to religious invocations or “legislative prayers” and not put off, even if they don’t happen to share the faith of the prayer-giver?—Rick Cohen