It's an interesting day for the separation of church and state. In a five-to-four ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a city council in upstate New York does not violate the Constitution by opening its civic meetings with prayer.
The two plaintiffs — one identifies as an atheist, the other as Jewish — sued the officials of Greece, N.Y. because of the town's longstanding practice of pre-meeting prayer. Greece once held a moment of silence before its meetings, but reportedly instituted formal prayers in 1999. These are offered by Christian clergy and are often given "in the name of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives with you," according to court documents.
Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that this kind of ceremonial prayer dates back to the country's founding, and that citizens' "willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs."
Even with the separation of church and state, religious language permeates our government. The words "In God We Trust" are printed on our currency, and the current version of the Pledge of Allegiance includes the line "one nation under God." Plus, the marshal of the Supreme Court traditionally announces, "God save the United States and this honorable court."
Justice Elena Kagan dissented, writing, "When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines."
Justice Kagan also posed a series of hypothetical scenarios, imagining if these prayers were to take place at a trial, a polling place, or a naturalization ceremony — regardless of whether that ceremony were Christian, Jewish, or Muslim. "In any instance," Kagan wrote, "the question would be why such government-sponsored prayer of a single religion goes beyond the constitutional pale."
Religious freedom expert and University of Notre Dame law professor Richard W. Garnett told NPR that the ruling doesn't actually change much in terms of how legislative prayer has been traditionally treated. "[The] law in this area remains as muddled and difficult to apply as it has been for the past 30 years," he wrote. "Legislative prayers, even ones that are 'sectarian,' are permissible, sometimes, depending on context and circumstances." (CNN)