For the first time in a generation, the Supreme Court is revisiting an issue that has divided, confused and angered Americans for many decades: What's in and what's out when it comes to prayer at government meetings?
The justices heard arguments this week in a case from Greece, N.Y., where, according to plaintiffs, the prayers before City Council meetings are so overwhelmingly Christian that the city government has essentially "affiliated" with Christianity, and has thus violated constitutional prohibitions against government favoring one religion over others.
Let's hope the court -- which, incidentally, opens its sessions with the invocation "God save the United States and this honorable court" -- will make matters clearer. But in addition to clarity, we need something the justices cannot implement: a collective act of Americans choosing to become more reasonable about religious rights and limits in the venues where faith and government rub elbows, and more respectful of the fact that each person's brand of religion or non-religion cannot be fully installed at the expense of all others.
To some, where there's government, there shall be no religion, and vice versa. Good luck with that.
For insight on the inextricable relationship between religion and government, ponder the religious practice of President Obama, which is in the spotlight thanks to a new book about his prayer life by his former staff member Joshua DuBois.
In The President's Devotional, DuBois compiles the prayers and bits of Scripture and inspiration that he has been e-mailing the president every morning since Obama's first presidential campaign, and that the president reportedly reads on his BlackBerry to start each day.
No problem, an ardent church-state separation champion might say. At least Obama keeps his religion to himself.
Except that he doesn't. He ends many of his presidential speeches with "God Bless America." Taking a step further, in interviews and on occasions such as the National Prayer Breakfast, he sometimes speaks publicly about his faith in Jesus Christ.
It's a stretch, but one could say he even legislates his Christian morality through government by striving to accomplish such aims as making health care available to more people.
We hear innumerable complaints about Obama, but never that he is a Christian theocrat who's trying to force his religion down the public's throat. Why?
Among other reasons, it's because Obama has not resorted to claiming God's will as justification for controversial policies. Nor has he used his faith to attack his political opponents or to marginalize those with beliefs different from his own. He has, in short, developed trust and shown respect on these scores, which is probably why ardent atheists and agnostics don't make a big public stink about Obama's public religiosity even if it makes them squirm.
Contrast Obama's public prayer approach with a worst-case scenario circulating in progressive circles in recent months.
Last summer, John Jordan, a Baptist minister, gave the opening prayer at a session of the Alabama Public Service Commission. Jordan went off, reminding the Lord of all the liberal misdeeds that surely make God mad. "We've taken you out of our schools and out of our prayers," Jordan said. "We have murdered your children. We've said it's OK to have same-sex marriage. We have sinned, and we ask once again that you'll forgive us for our sins."
An extreme example, but useful for showing why it's tempting to say "the hell with it" and decree all prayer off limits in government settings. Tempting, but surely not constitutional, as the justices will likely remind us when they issue their decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway.
A tidy and final resolution of these matters of church and state will probably go on eluding us, just as it has for two-plus centuries. Complaints and controversies will continue: Is it OK to have religiously themed dormitories at public universities? Is it constitutionally legit for the Air Force Academy to include "so help me God" in its honor oath? How often does a city council need to balance Christian prayers with invocations from Muslims, Hindus, or humanists to avoid favoring Christianity?
The Constitution gives us a clue, but not an answer. That leaves us to apply some resources that seem in short supply today: reasonableness, respect and consideration for people with ideas and beliefs different from our own.
If only the Supreme Court could give us more of those.
This article originally appeared in USA Today November 4, 2013