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The U.S. Supreme Court’s upcoming ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway could have far-reaching affects on prayers and invocations made before government and state-sponsored events. At its heart is the question of government endorsement of a particular faith, and whether sectarian prayers overwhelmingly weighted towards one faith can be made so long as a fig-leaf of neutrality is maintained in written policy. I have written about this case before, and how modern Pagans have been deeply intertwined with the development of the “model invocation policy” being challenged and with this case itself.

“In just a few seconds’ time during the April Town Board meeting, Jennifer Zarpentine made Greece history. Zarpentine, a Wiccan, delivered the first-ever pagan prayer to open a meeting of the Greece Town Board. Her hands raised to the sky, she called upon Greek deities Athena and Apollo to ‘help the board make the right informed decisions for the benefit and greater good of the community.’ A small cadre of her friends and coven members in the audience chimed in ‘so mote it be.’”

Senator Marco Rubio

Senator Marco Rubio

Now, with the case on the Supreme Court docket, “friend of the court” briefings have been trickling in, most notably from a bi-partisan group of United States Senators (over 30 Republicans and one Democrat), and from a coalition of states lead by the Attorney Generals of Indiana and Texas. The first, spearheaded by Marco Rubio, seems to argue that the Supreme Court upholding (or expanding on) the Court of Appeals verdict in this case could eliminate the Establishment Clause carve-out for a paid government chaplains (as established in Marsh v. Chambers).

“This Court should eliminate the uncertainty and affirm the strong constitutional footing on which legislative prayer stands. In a nation of broad religious diversity, the best means of ensuring that the government does not prefer any particular religious view in the context of legislative prayer is to allow all those who pray to do so in accordance with their own consciences and in the language of their own faiths.”

In essence, Rubio and the other senators are playing the religious freedom card, hand-waving away the fact that Greece’s “neutral” policy “virtually ensured a Christian viewpoint” according to the appeals court judges. However, even more problematic is the brief submitted by 23 states, which not only argues that sectarian prayers before government meetings to be upheld, but raises the bar in terms of challenging prayer policies.

“The amici States urge the Court to re-affirm the central holding of Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, 792 (1983), that legislative prayers are permissible as “simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country,” and to disclaim any role for the so-called endorsement test when it comes to analyzing legislative prayer practices. The Court should also consider using this case as an opportunity to clarify Establishment Clause doctrine more generally by requiring a showing of religious coercion as a touchstone for proving any type of unlawful religious establishment.

In other words, government-sponsored prayers should not only have an Establishment Clause carve-out, individuals should have to prove “religious coercion” in order to bring an establishment of religion challenge against a government body. Such a high bar would throw current precedent on Establishment Clause challenges into chaos. It would also mean that rather famous cases involving Pagans, like Darla Kaye Wynne’s successful struggle against the town of Great Falls, South Carolina, would most likely have been thrown out. Because how, exactly, does a religious minority prove coercion in a town dominated by Christians set on praising Christ before every function?

Justice Brennan

Justice Brennan

Marsh v. Chambers, a SCOTUS decision which both the States and Rubio’s coalition places front-and-center in their amicus briefs to argue the Establishment Clause does not apply to government-sponsored prayer, featured a telling dissent by Justice William J. Brennan and Justice Thurgood Marshall that spoke directly to the question of coercion.

“The “primary effect” of legislative prayer is also clearly religious. As we said in the context of officially sponsored prayers in the public schools, “prescribing a particular form of religious worship,” even if the individuals involved have the choice not to participate, places “indirect coercive pressure upon religious minorities to conform to the prevailing officially approved religion. . . .” Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 431 (1962). More importantly, invocations in Nebraska’s legislative halls explicitly link religious belief and observance to the power and prestige of the State.

In short, the coercion is already happening, but it is being ignored in the name of tradition. These State Attorney Generals, and Senators, and conservative Christian organizations like the Family Research Council, and the Liberty Institute want desperately for that coercion to continue, and indeed, for it to be trumpeted as “freedom.”

“Courts that impose religious “neutrality” categorically exclude certain religions that require the use of those prohibited terms and violate the mandate of the Establishment Clause that all persons be treated equally by the government, regardless of religious creed.”

In short, making Christians not say “Jesus” before government assemblies and functions hinders their freedom. Somehow.

As I’ve noted before, the outcome of this verdict will likely decide the fate of opening invocations before government meetings. Will the “model invocation policy” used by Greece (and several other towns) be allowed to stand? If so, we can look forward to a huge groundswell of sectarian Christian prayer being instituted across large chunks of the United States. After all, this model policy clearly states that public bodies are “not required to extend any extraordinary efforts to include particular minority faiths” and  “no apology is necessary for the demographics of the community that the public body serves.” This could be a chilling roll-back of advances by religious minorities, and those who hold no religious affiliation at all.

Rev. Kevin Kisler prays prior to the start of a Greece, N.Y., Town Board meeting in 2008. Photo: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

Rev. Kevin Kisler prays prior to the start of a Greece, N.Y., Town Board meeting in 2008. Photo: Rochester Democrat and Chronicle

I’m hoping that the Supreme Court is prudent here, and commits no drastic change to our understandings of the Establishment Clause, though I’m less optimistic since their Voting Rights Act decision. Recent rulings in the 2nd and 4th Courts of Appeals should be respected, and their understanding of how invocations slanted towards the largest demographic can create the appearance of establishment (and coercion) listened to. The current Supreme Court is made up of Roman Catholics and Jews, two religions that once fought very hard against the unthinking privilege of the Protestant Christian majority. Now, there is a chance to make the United States a truly pluralistic nation, not one that claims to be pluralistic, but looks the other way in the name of tradition.

Whatever happens, modern Pagans, and all religious minorities, should pay very close attention to Town of Greece v. Galloway.