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Supreme Court Decision On Official Prayer Will Not End Public Debate

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This post was updated at 3:54pm to include additional quotes.

The Supreme Court’s decision Monday to approve of explicit ceremonial Christian prayer before government meetings will not bring any truce in the ongoing legal and political battle over the proper role of religion in American public life.

Shortly after the ruling came down, the American Civil Liberties Union tweeted its disappointment—“Official religious favoritism should be off-limits under the Constitution”—while conservative Christian leaders from Russell Moore to Ralph Reed praised the decision as a First Amendment victory. “The court has rejected the idea that as citizens we must check our faith at the entrance to the public square,” Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, says. “This welcome decision is very helpful in putting the brakes on the efforts of militant secularists to rid the public square of any religious expression.”

Today’s Town of Greece v. Galloway case began brewing in 2007, when two residents from town of Greece, near Rochester, NY, complained that the town’s monthly council meetings regularly opened with Christian invocation. The plaintiffs, one Jewish and one atheist, argued that the prayers constituted an establishment of religion by the government, and sued the town in federal court. The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case last May, and the Obama administration surprised many people last August when it filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the town. The U.S. solicitor general argued that the U.S. Constitution allowed for sectarian prayer as long as the prayer did not proselytize or disparage another faith.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty called Monday’s ruling a “great victory” for religious freedom. “Prayers like these have been taking place in our nation’s legislatures for over 200 years,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the Town of Greece case. “They demonstrate our nation’s religious diversity, and highlight the fact that religion is a fundamental aspect of human culture.”

Penny Nance, president of the Concerned Women for America, also applauded the ruling. “Everyone wins, including the staunchest atheists, when we allow the free exercise of religion or non-religion according to a person’s conscience,” she said in a statement. Russell Moore wrote that the Supreme Court didn’t violate the separation between between church and state, but upheld it. “Maybe this is a sign of a better way forward, toward a right kind of free marketplace of faith expression in American life,” he said. “Let’s pray that it is.”

But the losing plaintiffs also have some religious leaders on their side. Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, president of the Interfaith Alliance, and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, stood against Monday’s ruling and may be allies for the opposition as the fight continues. “If there is any positive side in this disturbing decision it is that the court makes clear that if ‘the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion…That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court,'” Gaddy said. “The distinction is a difficult one to make and one I expect will cause the courts to revisit the issue soon.” In a separate statement, Saperstein said, “Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that requiring invocations be nonsectarian would call on the legislatures sponsoring these prayers and the courts to intervene and ‘act as supervisors and censors of religious speech.’ Yet, Justice Kennedy did suggest there were limits to such prayers, among them: denigrating non-believers or religious minorities, threatening damnation, or preaching conversion—leaving courts in exactly the same role as line-drawers.”

Openly Secular, a coalition whose mission is to increase acceptance of atheists, agnostics, and other seculars, was also disappointed with the ruling. “The court’s conservative majority is moving the country away from the founders’ vision of a nation committed to the separation between church and state,” Robyn Blumner, the group’s project director, said in a statement. “The practical consequence will be more official prayer, overwhelmingly Christian—clearly communicating to all Americans whose faith holds the power and whose beliefs don’t count.”

It is hard to hear responses like Perkins’ and Rassbach’s without remembering that the Supreme Court is expected to rule on another religious freedom case this summer: Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby. The Becket Fund is also defending the Green family, the owners of Hobby Lobby, in that case. For Rassbach, the Green family is asking the Courts to recognize religion as a fundamental aspect of human life in Hobby Lobby just as it did on Monday. “In Town of Greece, the Supreme Court has affirmed that religion is not a vaguely shameful thing that must be confined to private life,” he explains. “In Hobby Lobby, however, the government argues precisely the opposite. It says religious people are entitled to hold their beliefs in private; but once they create a business, they must check their religious beliefs at the door—on pain of multi-million dollar fines.”

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