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The Paralyzing Premise of Public Prayer

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Sporadically over the past six years I have written that an obscure lawsuit, in a town nobody has heard of, was the most important legal battle being waged in our country. Now the case has come before the Supreme Court, validating my earlier view of the trial's importance, while horrifying sound-minded citizens that the highest court in the land would agree to take the case.

The Supreme Court will shortly hear arguments that may well undermine our most cherished founding principle, the separation of church and state. As you absorb the folly to come, forget not that early settlers made the arduous journey to our shores in part to escape the stifling oppression of a dominant religion. The urgent need to rid the government from the influence of a single religion was Thomas Jefferson's unifying and guiding light. But Jeffersonian principles have been set aside for the convenience of promoting Christianity over all other religions. Welcome to the United States of Iran.

The epicenter of our shift to a theocracy can be found in Greece, N.Y., where something seemingly innocent enough in fact threatens to undermine the foundational ideals of our country. In Greece, N.Y., the town supervisor each month invites a local Christian minister to open the council's meeting with a Christian prayer. Just this week the Reverend Lou Sirianni began with this:

"Be thou present, O God of wisdom, and direct the councils of this honorable assembly." He ended with, "All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Savior."

The obvious problem of course is that not all citizens believe Christ is our savior. No big deal, you say? What is the problem you ask? Would any Christian or Jew tolerate a town meeting opened exclusively with an Islamic prayer from the Quran? How would our Christian citizens feel if the meeting were opened with pleas to Allah? Or if the opening prayer was done in Hebrew? The answer is obvious and self-evident: it would be offensive, and clearly counter to the ideal of freedom of religion. That reality simply cannot be denied. Still not convinced? Then imagine an imam, bearded and turbaned, in traditional dress, standing before our United States Congress, invoking the Quran to open every session of the House and Senate. Not comfortable with that? Then imagine how every Jew, Muslim and Atheist feels with each opening of a government meeting with a Christian prayer.

For this rather obvious reason the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court ruled that such public government-sponsored prayer violated the separation of church and state. If a town council cannot impose Islam on its residents, then the council cannot impose Christianity. Any effort to do so is unambiguously a violation of the Establishment Clause. Such an imposition is precisely what Jefferson and our other founder's feared most. The Circuit Court ruled reasonably; and the Supreme Court had no business taking this case.

Perhaps you think that Sirianni's prayer was an anomaly, and that opening prayer is generally non-denominational. Well, no. Here is another sample, from Pastor Robert Campbell's town hall opening:

"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace." ... Father, we thank You for these blessings that You've given us and bestowed on us, and Lord, blessing us with these men and women that have governed us, we pray that You'd continue Your blessing on them. ... It's all because of what You've done and Your son Jesus in sending Him to be the Prince of Peace. And we pray for that peace upon our community. In Jesus' name, Amen."

The last sentence should remove any lingering doubt about this being a Christian prayer. Just substitute "Allah" for "Jesus" and we're living in Tehran instead of New York.

Lest you think the Rev. Sirianni's invocation or that from Pastor Sirianni were random samplings from a broad range of what god to summon, until 2008 only Christians were allowed to lead the prayer as official policy. This exclusivity is important because the Supreme Court has previously ruled, under the so-called "O'Connor's endorsement standard" that the government violates the First Amendment whenever it appears to "endorse" religion. Specifically, a government action is invalid if it creates a perception in the mind of a reasonable observer that the government is either endorsing or disapproving of religion. Well, c'mon: excluding all religions but one is by any standard an endorsement of that one remaining religion.

Yes, prior to this standard, the Court's record was a bit muddled. In 1971 in Lemon v. Kurtzman, another case involving religion in legislation, the court came up with what later became known as the "Lemon test." Government action "should have a secular purpose, cannot advance or inhibit religion and must avoid too much government entanglement with religion."

In 1983, one year before O'Conner's contribution, the Warren court ruled in Marsh v. Chambers that public funds could be used to pay a minister to offer opening prayers because prayer was "part of the fabric of our society" -- thereby excluding all parts of our society where prayer is not part of daily life. Prayer is certainly not a part of my social fabric; am I go be excluded because I am not Christian?

So, let us return to Greece, NY. A Jewish resident, along with a resident atheist, sued the Greece town council arguing that "a reasonable observer" would conclude that Christian prayer "must be viewed as an endorsement of a... Christian viewpoint" and therefore is in violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court agreed, ruling against the town, concluding that the town's actions "virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint" that featured a "steady drumbeat of often specifically sectarian Christian prayers." Ya think? This ruling is self-evidently correct based on the very words from town representatives, who make their motives clear. Pastor Vince DiPaola asked, "Do I want everybody to be a Christian? Of course I do." Complaining residents should "grow some thicker skin." Really? Would he grow a thicker skin if an Imam opened the meeting with a prayer to Mohammad?

Rather than refute that rather obvious conclusion and explicit statements that the local government is promoting religion, in clear violation of the Establishment Clause, town supporters argue that the Court should "relax" constitutional limits on religious invocations. The reasoning implicitly accepts that the town is in fact violating our constitution - but that we should excuse Christianity from its limitations. Oh? Should we "relax" our right to bear arms? How about our privacy protections under the constitution? How about the right to assembly? The right to free speech? Should we "relax" those protections? Maybe we should just scrap the entire Bill of Rights because the protections given therein might inconvenience a subset of our society who wish to promote one religion to the detriment of all others.

As a demonstration of where things will go once we become a Christian nation where everyone not a Christian has to grow a thick skin, one woman participant in the lawsuit arose one morning to find that her mailbox, once firmly in the ground near her driveway, was sitting on top of her car; part of a fire hydrant was thrown in her pool. All this was wrapped in the tolerant Christian message that the woman should "be careful... lawsuits can be detrimental."

The hearing before the Supreme Court is an embarrassing charade made possible by the radicalism of Scalia and his cohorts. The explicitly stated attempt to promote Christianity in a government meeting so obviously violates our Constitution that the case should have never even come close to the halls of our highest court. Our judicial branch of government has been hijacked by zealots who are no different than the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution in Iran. Even in agreeing to hear this case our Supreme Court has shed any pretense of fulfilling their constitutional duties.

We are not now nor have we ever been a Christian nation. Let's hear from John Adams, one of our most influential founders, who addressed the question straight on in 1797:

"The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

As I've written before, we do not need a Church of America; what the founding fathers knew in 1776 holds true in 2013. In spite of right-wing Christian rhetoric to the contrary, that we are a secular nation cannot be denied. The facts supporting that conclusion are unambiguous, overwhelming, and indisputable. The Declaration of Independence in 1776, the Articles of Confederation of 1777, the U.S. Constitution (1787), and the Federalist Papers (1787-1788) are purely secular documents (I have reviewed these in detail elsewhere).

The time has come for us to fight the arrogant certainty among Christians that they hold a truth more valid than Jews, Muslims and those who eschew all religion. What is happening in Greece, N.Y. must end before that virus of intolerance infects the entire nation. How ridiculous, how absurd is this fight; how blatantly obvious that promoting Christian prayers promotes Christianity. Enough already.