New Castle News


May 6, 2014

Our Opinion: Court’s approval of practice at public meetings remains problematical

NEW CASTLE — We’re not sure if yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling on prayer at public meetings makes much difference.

For one thing, it came in one of those increasingly problematical 5-4 decisions this court is famous for presenting. That lack of decisiveness is a blot on the court’s credibility — suggesting constitutional law is little more than an ideological jump ball subject to dramatic change with the switch of a single justice.

But for the issue at hand, such prayers are hardly rare, particularly in smaller municipalities. In those cases, communities may be less diverse and fewer people are likely to object.

In a larger city, any attempt to conduct a prayer at a government meeting is more likely to create controversy from those who hold differing beliefs.

The court majority declared that prayers at town council meetings do not violate the Constitution, so long as they refrain from denigrating particular religions.

We assume those who support the notion of linking government and religion will take comfort in this ruling — at least until they hear of prayers at government sessions for religions that differ from theirs. The court ruling may protect Christian prayers at public meetings, but it basically does the same for prayers of all faiths.

For the most part and in most communities, nothing much will change as a result of this decision. But considering the size and diversity of America, we can almost guarantee there will be disputes.

We envision battles erupting when council members of different faiths seek the supposed advantage of prayer, and their desires conflict with each other. And what happens when a citizen in attendance openly objects, or uses the opportunity for public comment to pray to a different deity?

We happen to believe the separation of church and state has served America well throughout its history. Yes, there are anti-religious extremists who seek to do mischief in a variety of ways. But a basic reading of the Constitution clearly shows that while the founders welcomed the free exercise of religion by individuals and their churches, there was no effort to tie religion to the actions of government.

To the contrary, the lack of any reference to God in the Constitution sends the message that faith is the business of the people, not the state.

A gray area arises, we suppose, when elected officials (who technically are the people) opt to conduct prayers at public meetings. Presumably, this is done to seek God’s guidance in the decision-making process.

We will leave it to citizens to decide if they really believe those prayers are being answered.

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