Supreme Court

Dangers of Supreme Court Prayer Ruling Quickly Become Clear

Sometimes the damage from a bad court decision takes a while to make itself clear. Not so with last week’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding a town’s practice of beginning council meetings with prayers that are overwhelmingly Christian. Conservative political and legal groups called it a win for religious freedom, but it only took a few days to see just how much unnecessary and divisive conflict the Court’s decision could generate in communities across America.

Late last week the mayor of the New Jersey town of Carteret cited the Supreme Court ruling to justify cancelling the use of the borough hall for a Saturday naturalization ceremony.  He was upset that the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to allow the ceremony to begin with prayer. The INS says its rules are meant to ensure that naturalization ceremonies are "conducted in a meaningful manner which is welcoming and inclusive and excludes political, commercial and religious statements." But Mayor Daniel Reiman said the INS could "host its godless ceremony someplace else." (It was held in Newark.)

What a sad object lesson for those aspiring American citizens and their friends and families. Who knows how many different faiths were represented among them? It shouldn’t matter, because one of the most precious benefits of being an American is that your rights and standing as a citizen do not depend on your holding any particular set of religious beliefs.

But don’t tell that to Al Bedrosian, a member of the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors in Virginia. Last week after the Supreme Court ruling, Bedrosian declared that prayers to open board meetings should be given only by Christians. It is shameful that Bedrosian holds public office in Virginia, home of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson and the birthplace of the First Amendment. Bedrosian argued publicly several years ago that Christians should “rid ourselves of this notion of freedom of religion in America.” He said Christians “are being fed lies that a Christian nation needs to be open to other religions” and called it one of the “greatest moments in US Senate history” when a group of Christians disrupted a Hindu religious leader who was giving an opening prayer.

Both Reiman and Bedrosian are misinterpreting the Court’s decision. But these episodes bring even greater clarity to a reality to which the conservative majority on the Supreme Court demonstrated “blindness” – in the words of dissenting Justice Elena Kagan. That is the exclusionary and divisive reality – as opposed to the theory – of government bodies opening their meetings with sectarian prayer.

The case decided by the Supreme Court came concerned the upstate New York town of Greece.  For years, the town council has been inviting local clergy to open its meetings. Those clergy have been overwhelmingly Christian, and their prayers were sometimes highly sectarian, invoking “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” or “the plan of redemption that is fulfilled in Jesus Christ.” These were not, as dissenting Justice Elena Kagan noted, ceremonial invocations like the “God save the United States and this honorable Court,” which begins Supreme Court sessions.

The town’s prayer policy was challenged by two citizens (one Jew and one atheist) who felt coerced by the invitations to Christian prayer, and who felt as if they were being made outsiders in their own town based on their religious beliefs. They argued that the practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which has been interpreted as preventing the government from favoring religion in general or any religion in particular.

Some people, particularly those in the religious majority, have a hard time seeing why such prayer is a big deal. As Paul Waldman writes for the Washington Post, “the ruling is about the privilege of the majority, the privilege to define your own beliefs, traditions, and practices as simply the water in which we all swim. If you’re in that majority, you tend to be shocked when anyone even questions whether those practices ought to be imposed on everyone and sponsored by the state.”

But imagine, as Kagan did, a Muslim who has come before the city council seeking a zoning variance to build an addition on her home. When she is asked to join in prayer celebrating the divinity of Jesus, she has the option of not participating, or leaving the room. Either option identifies her as somehow different from her neighbors and from the councilmembers who will decide the fate of her request.  A federal appeals court had ruled that the town’s practice was unconstitutional because, even if town officials had no bad intent, the consequence of the nearly uninterrupted parade of Christian prayers was to signal that Christianity was favored, and to make unequal citizens of people of other faiths or no faith.

Unfortunately, five Supreme Court justices disagreed, saying even an overwhelmingly Christian and sectarian prayer practice is OK unless there is a pattern of prayers denigrating other faiths or proselytizing or unless there is evidence that people are being legally coerced or punished for not participating. The Court has given a green light to “Christian Nation” advocates like Al Bedrosian to demand that their city council or county commission allow their official meetings to be regularly opened with explicitly Christian prayers.  Some Religious Right leaders have said that’s exactly what they’re going to do.

Right now, practices vary. Some government bodies don’t bother with prayer; others invite clergy to open meetings, with guidelines that prayers be respectful or nonsectarian. But even that nod toward pluralism is at risk: Jordan Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice said this ruling means government bodies can no longer make a distinction between nonsectarian prayer and “praying in Jesus’ name” and he told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “that will have an impact on a number of cases.”

It’s worth noting that some progressive Christians agree that “nonsectarian prayer” is a kind of oxymoron. But, says Washington Monthly blogger Ed Kilgore, that is not a reason to push for sectarian prayer; it is instead a reason to do away with legislative prayer altogether. He writes that the effort to push more prayer in official settings is “offensive to those who pray as much as to those who don’t.” The pro-church-state-separation Baptist Joint Committee had filed a brief in the case stating that “prayer is an expression of voluntary religious devotion, not the business of government.”

That brings us to a crucial distinction between what is constitutional and what is wise, particularly in a country that is increasingly diverse, with a growing number of people who claim no religious affiliation. As noted in People For the American Way Foundation’s Twelve Rules for Mixing Religion and Politics, “Some things that are legally permissible may still be damaging to religious tolerance and civic discourse, and should be discouraged.”

The Supreme Court did not rule that legislative bodies have to begin their meetings with prayer; it ruled that the Constitution allows them to. In spite of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s portrayal of legislative prayer as a unifying force, it seems likely that an aggressive push for more sectarian prayer to open official meetings will be anything but unifying. Elected officials should think twice before going down that road.

Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said he prays that the Court is showing a way toward “a right kind of free marketplace of faith expression in American life.” But Moore is wrong: we already have a free marketplace of faith expression in America. The First Amendment has fostered a vibrant, flourishing, peaceful religious pluralism that is unmatched anywhere in the world. Christian media has a massive presence on television, radio, and online. But what too many “Christian Nation” advocates want, and what the Court is opening the door to, is a system in which a religious majority can more easily use the institutions of government to promote its religious beliefs and label others as outsiders.

And that is not the American Way. 

PFAW Foundation

Breaking News: Marriage Equality Coming to New Jersey

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Congress Begins Work on New Voting Rights Act Legislation

The House and Senate held hearings last week to discuss a replacement for the federal preclearance formula of the Voting Rights Act. Without a coverage formula, the Justice Department will no longer be able to enforce the VRA’s Section 5, which requires states and counties with histories of discriminatory voting practices to secure federal approval before changing their voting laws.
PFAW

Dumping DOMA: The Next Step

PFAW is a strong supporter of the Respect for Marriage Coalition and applauds Representative Nadler, Senator Feinstein, and their 200 bipartisan cosponsors for taking swift action to dump DOMA.
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Representative John Lewis: "There's other bridges to walk across"

The Supreme Court's ruling in Shelby is a setback, or as Representative Lewis put it to ABC's Jeff Zeleny earlier today: "What the Supreme Court did was to put a dagger in the very heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965." But it's also part of the voting rights bridge that we must continue fighting to get across.
PFAW Foundation

Delaware General Assembly Members Send Letter to Washington Urging Constitutional Amendment to Overturn Citizens United

Earlier this month, members of the Delaware General Assembly began gathering signatures for a letter to be sent to Senator Carper, Senator Coons, and Representative Carney urging them and their colleagues to pass a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and related cases.
PFAW

Inside the Supreme Court, Bearing Witness to History

Yesterday, I was privileged to have been able to get a seat at the Supreme Court and witness a historic moment for equality.
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Rallying for Marriage Equality – Day Two

What has stood out most for me from this experience is seeing the real people behind these cases. Yesterday, I waited at the Court until attorneys David Boies and Ted Olson walked down those famous steps with the Proposition 8 plaintiffs, Kristin Perry and Sandra Stier, and Paul Katami and Jeffrey Zarrillo. Today, I watched as Edie Windsor, at 83 years old, made that same walk, to loud cheers and applause and chants of “Edie! Edie!” In return, we all got a wave and a kiss blown our way.
PFAW

New Hampshire Moves Forward With First Steps to Overturn Citizens United in Bipartisan Vote

In a bipartisan vote yesterday, the New Hampshire House passed a bill calling for a constitutional amendment to get big money out of our elections and overturn Citizens United.
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Senator Portman’s change of heart and the legacy of Harvey Milk

Why did Senator Portman’s change of heart take two years? Why has he continued to support the anti-gay policies of his party? There’s a lot of debate on both points, but one thing is certain: it was his son’s own coming out that forced the Senator to come out in support of marriage equality, and to do that interview and write that op-ed.
PFAW

PFAW is United for Marriage

Marriage equality will be before the Supreme Court on March 26 and 27. PFAW will be there with the United for Marriage coalition. You can join us in DC or attend an event near you.
PFAW

Sotomayor Calls Out Prosecutor’s Attempt to ‘Substitute Racial Stereotype for Evidence’

Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor issued a statement today in connection with the denial of a cert petition for a case from Texas. She agreed with the decision not to hear the appeal, but she recognized the need to also release a statement condemning the offensive, racially charged remarks of a federal prosecutor during a drug-focused trial.  During the cross-examination of a man who testified that he was not part of and did not know about friends’ plan to buy illegal drugs, the prosecutor asked:

“You've got African-Americans, you've got Hispanics, you've got a bag full of money. Does that tell you – a light bulb doesn't go off in your head and say, This is a drug deal?”

Sotomayor called the prosecutor’s comment “pernicious in its attempt to substitute racial stereotype for evidence, and racial prejudice for reason.” She went on:

“It is deeply disappointing to see a representative of the United States resort to this base tactic more than a decade into the 21st century. Such conduct diminishes the dignity of our criminal justice system and undermines respect for the rule of law. We expect the Government to seek justice, not to fan the flames of fear and prejudice.”

Sotomayor’s powerful response highlights the critical importance of diversity in our court system.  As Justice Sotomayor noted in 2001, “our experiences as women and people of color affect our decisions.”  During her confirmation, People For the American Way Foundation documented the far right’s vitriolic reactions to Sotomayor’s insightful discussion of the ways in which her life experiences as a Latina woman inform her view of the law. 

But today’s statement is one example of what that looks like in practice.  It highlights what it looks like when a woman of color on our nation’s highest court has the power to call out blatant racism in the judicial system. 
 

PFAW Foundation

Endorsements Cite Supreme Court

Overwhelming majority of endorsements cite the Supreme Court as an enormous contributing factor to keeping President Obama in office.
PFAW

POLITICO: Supreme Court a Critical 2012 Issue

A POLITICO article out today reaffirms that the 2012 election is of “Supreme importance” to the future of the nation’s highest court.

The piece takes note of the critical role the court will play in the upcoming elections and reminds readers that the next presidential term will be particularly important in determining the composition of the court for decades to come.

Four Supreme Court justices enter the next term in their 70s, and any changes during the next presidential term could tip the balance of the court on some of the nation’s hottest social issues, including same-sex marriage, civil rights and abortion.

There’s also the often-overlooked aspect that the president nominates judges to fill the nation’s appellate and district courts, which produce some of the country’s most lasting decisions.

POLITICO also notes that due to widespread GOP efforts at voter suppression, there is a possibility that the court may have a hand in determining the outcome of the presidential race.

Mitt Romney’s top judicial adviser, the far-right former judge Robert Bork, weighed in as well:

Few see the Supreme Court actually becoming a prominent attack line when the candidates are speaking to the general public. “It should be, but the economic issues will far outweigh other questions,” Robert Bork, the former Reagan Supreme Court nominee now serving as a top Romney legal adviser, wrote in an email to POLITICO.

As the decision in Citizens United and other cases clearly demonstrates, the current Supreme Court is one of the most conservative in American history. It’s hard to imagine a court even further to the right, and yet that is exactly what a Romney presidency would ensure.

For more on the Supreme Court and Robert Bork, See PFAW’s report “Borking America” and visit RomneyCourt.com.

PFAW