The recent U. S. Supreme Court decision on a prayer case from the town of Greece, New York was another unfortunate loosening of our First Amendment right to the separation of church and state.
I realize some Christian conservatives will insist there is no separation of church and state in the U. S. Constitution, but their evidence consists of the fact that these five words are not in the First Amendment. But if you read the first words of the First Amendment it is clear: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” That was aimed at the established churches that existed in nine of our thirteen colonies. Later the high court used the phrase “separation of church and state” to explain what the First Amendment means.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1833 – in a case involving the Fifth Amendment -- that the Bill of Rights only applies to the federal government. But the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868 – three years after the Civil War ended – changed that, and in the course of the twentieth century the Supreme Court ruled that almost all of the rights listed in the Bill of Rights were so “fundamental” that the due process clause of the 14th Amendment required that these fundamental rights be respected by the states. The most notable exception to those 20th century rights regarded as “fundamental” and therefore required of the states was the Second Amendment right to bear arms. The Supreme Court didn’t decide that right is fundamental until the 21st century, -- four decades after the previous decision applying one of these rights.
The town of Greece, New York was beginning its monthly town meetings with a prayer from the “chaplain of the month,” who was almost always Christian. And the prayers often used very Christian language, for example, “We acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.” That is language that a lot of Christians don’t believe, as many hold a view of the atonement contrary to that “satisfaction” or “blood atonement” theory.”
One example of a Christian leader who very strongly disagreed with that prayer was Roy Cheville, who taught religion at Graceland for nearly four decades and then became the Presiding Patriarch of the RLDS Church for 16 years.
There are many who are adherents of other faiths, or are agnostics or atheists. And finally, there are believing Christians who believe in the separation of church and state and therefore don't want these prayers. For centuries Baptists were the leading supporters of the separation of church and state among the Christians in America. Roger Williams and others were all too familiar with the persecution Baptists and others had suffered all through the centuries. And of course Jews have a much longer history as a persecuted people.
Those of us who are on the Protestant side of the major Christian divide in America and revere Luther and Calvin need to remember that the religious division that occurred as a result of the 16th century Reformation also led to religious wars and countless Christians and non-Christians being killed for their religious “heresies.”
Why is it that the nations today who keep religion and government separate are not the countries which persecute people for their lack of the “right” faith?
Doc Rivers is the coach of the Los Angeles Clippers, the team with the notoriously racist owner. He had an incident early in his NBA coaching career where he noticed that before the games one of his players – a zealous evangelical – was gathering his teammates in a circle while he prayed. Rivers noticed that one player – a Muslim -- stood there with his arms folded, clearly not pleased. Rivers announced before the next game that these prayers would end. He said players have all different faiths. After the game was over, the Muslim player came to his coach, crying, thanking him profusely. He told Doc, “I’ll give all I have for you.”
At the time of the Civil War the USA was pretty much a nation with an unofficial “Protestant establishment.” That was why Catholics felt a need to form their own schools. But in the 149 years since the Civil War ended, first Catholics and Jews, and more recently other major world religions like Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and others have arrived in our country, making it all the more offensive to have prayers at town council or other public meetings.
Prior to 1962, the Regents of the New York schools wrote a prayer to be read at the beginning of school each day in all public schools. What they came up with was twenty-two words: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and beg thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our country.” That prayer satisfied almost no believer in their particular religion.
The Supreme Court wisely ruled it a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
Bill Russell is a retired professor at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa.