The Providence (R.I.) Journal, May 8, 2014
Reasonable people can disagree vehemently on the meaning of the First Amendment, as demonstrated by the 5-to-4 margin of Monday's Supreme Court ruling on prayer. The court ruled that the First Amendment permits even a Christian prayer at the start of a government board meeting, as long as there is no attempt to proselytize or pressure citizens to go along.
That seems a reasonable interpretation of what the First Amendment actually says. The amendment does not permit the federal government to prohibit the free exercise of religion by Americans, nor does it permit the government to establish a religion.
Does a voluntary prayer before a meeting -- something with a long tradition in America -- establish a state religion and force others to practice that religion? Only by the most extreme interpretation. In the real world, people are perfectly free to ignore the prayer, leave the room or petition their elected representatives to alter or drop the prayer. They may safely join any religious group they wish, or decline to believe altogether.
The First Amendment, in short, is a bulwark of liberty, protecting the right of people to express religious ideas even in public settings. But this guarantee of freedom does not preclude citizens from showing respect for diverse beliefs. Those who seek God's blessings at the start of government meetings may do so in a non-sectarian manner, striving not to exclude or offend any believers. Or they may eschew any prayer at all. Those approaches would be our strong preference to a sectarian prayer, which can hurt people's feelings and sow divisions.
In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan cited George Washington's famous 1790 letter to Newport's Touro Synagogue, in which he embraced America's support for religious liberty. Quoting the Bible's Old Testament, Washington wrote: "every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid." He added: "For happily the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."
It seems clear, though, that neither Washington nor the other Founders regarded public prayers as giving sanction to bigotry and assistance to persecution. Indeed, in his role as president, Washington issued a proclamation calling for a national day of prayer and fasting in service to "that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be." He stated: "it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor." He did not believe that eradicating any public mention of God was the American way.
While America is markedly more diverse and secular than it was in Washington's day, we should strive to emulate his support for religious liberty, and to give no sanction to bigotry. Surely, as free people of good will, we can do that without eradicating the freedom to express religious ideas and without banishing prayer from public life.